New study details cancer risk

Whether it’s for a family party, a night out with friends or just your way of starting the weekend, alcohol is often associated with good times. While for some people it may be a good way to “take the edge off” or “loosen up,” it may be a different story if you’re fighting cancer.

Recently, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) released a statement highlighting a strong link between alcohol and cancer and calling for greater awareness and education about the linkage. 

“The link between cancer and alcohol isn’t new per se,” explained Dr. Rajen Oza, a hematologist/oncologist at Geisinger Community Medical Center. “However, it seems like most people are unaware that drinking alcohol can cause cancer.”

An ASCO survey showed that found that 70 percent of people don’t know that drinking alcohol is a risk factor for cancer, and only 38 percent are limiting their alcohol consumption as a means to reduce their cancer risk.

Importantly, doctors say the risk is not just that a person could get cancer; there is also increased risk for people already battling the disease to develop new cancers. 

“Given the role alcohol has in creating and aggravating cancer, people who have cancer should avoid alcohol completely, if possible. Not only can it cause new cancer in existing patients, but it can delay and interfere with treatments,” said Dr. Oza.

How does alcohol cause cancer?
“There are a few theories for why alcohol causes cancer,” noted Dr. Oza. “One theory is that alcohol is an irritant and causes damage to cells throughout the body. As the cells grow back, they can suffer DNA damage, increasing the risk of them becoming cancerous.”

Another possibility is that alcohol inhibits the body’s ability to neutralize toxins. It can also convert certain bacteria in the colon into carcinogens—chemicals that cause cancer. Finally, alcohol can increase your level of body fat, a known risk factor for certain types of cancers. 

Even if you’re a light drinker, alcohol increases your risk for esophagus, colon, breast, pharynx, larynx and mouth cancers. And for heavy drinkers—women who have more than eight drinks a week or men who have more than 15 drinks a week—the risk is even greater. Heavy drinkers face almost five times the risk of mouth and throat cancers and squamous cell esophageal cancers than nondrinkers, nearly three times the risk of cancers of the voice box or larynx, double the risk of liver cancer and higher risks for female breast cancer and colorectal cancer. In the ASCO study, researchers concluded that alcohol is directly responsible for approximately five to six percent of new cancers and cancer deaths worldwide.

For people with cancer and compromised immune systems, alcohol can have a more severe impact and should be avoided.

Be smart about drinking
If you’re going outside on a sunny day, wearing sunscreen is a necessary precaution to prevent sunburn and skin cancer. Similarly, lowering your alcohol consumption is a preventive measure to lower your risk for cancer.

“Your risk is related to the amount of alcohol you drink—the more you drink, the greater the risk,” explained Dr. Oza. “The type of alcohol does not change the risk; all types of alcohol carry the same level of risk. Since alcohol can negatively interact with cancer treatments and medications, it’s best for cancer patients to avoid it altogether.”

Hematologist/oncologist Rajen Oza, MD, sees patients at Geisinger Community Medical Center’s Cancer Center in Scranton. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Oza, please call 800-275-6401 or visit Geisinger.org.