After a long, hard day at the office you may feel like you deserve that alcohol containing beverage to celebrate making it through the day. But, before you pour that drink, stop and take a moment to decipher whether it’s worth the associated cancer risk.
TYPES OF ALCOHOL RELATED CANCER
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has declared alcohol as a carcinogen (substance capable of causing cancer) since 19981. Statistics reveal that 1 in every 30 cancer deaths worldwide are blamed on alcohol 2. Extensive reviews of studies confirm that there is strong scientific evidence supporting an association between consumption of alcohol and several types of cancer including 3:
- Mouth cancer
- Pharyngeal cancer
- Oesophageal cancer
- Laryngeal cancer
- Breast cancer
- Bowel cancer
- Liver cancer
Growing evidence suggests that there is also a link between alcohol and others cancers, such as prostate, pancreatic and melanoma. More research is needed to confirm a cause-and-effect relationship.
HOW DOES ALCOHOL INCREASE THE RISK OF CANCER?
There are numerous ways that alcohol may increase the risk of cancer. These include 4:
- Ethanol in alcohol containing beverages is broken down to acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a toxic chemical that can damage DNA and proteins.
- Generating reactive oxygen species. Through a process called oxidation, these species can damage lipids, DNA and proteins.
- Limits the ability of the body to break down and absorb numerous nutrients such as vitamin A; nutrients in the vitamin B complex, such as folate; vitamin C; vitamin D; vitamin E; and carotenoids.
- These nutrients may be linked to cancer risk.
- Estrogen blood levels are increased. Breast cancer risk is associated with the sex hormone estrogen.
During the fermentation and production of alcohol containing beverages, the beverages may be contaminated with numerous carcinogenic substances such as nitrosamines, asbestos fibres, phenols, and hydrocarbons.
HOW MUCH ALCOHOL IS SAFE TO CONSUME?
The Cancer Association of South Africa states there is no risk-free level of alcohol consumption. Even ‘light drinking has been linked to causing cancers of the mouth, oesophagus and breast’ 3. The more alcohol a person consumes, the higher their risk of alcohol associated cancer.
The South African Food Based Dietary Guidelines state that ‘if you drink alcohol, drink sensibly 5’. Therefore if you choose to consume alcohol, women should not exceed one drink per day and men two drinks per day 6. One alcoholic beverage is equivalent to:
- 1 can or bottle (330ml) of beer
- 120ml of wine
- 25ml / 1 shot of spirits
WHAT ABOUT THE CLAIMED HEALTH BENEFITS OF DRINKING CERTAIN TYPES OF ALCOHOL?
Although research suggests that certain types of alcohol in specific amounts may be beneficial for your health, Cancer Research UK states that drinking for health reasons is still not recommended and this is backed by the new government guidelines4. Instead, it is recommend that people improve their heart health by eating a healthy balanced diet and engaging in physical activity.
DOES CANCER RISK DECREASE WHEN YOU STOP DRINKING?
Research on cancer risk after a person stops consuming alcohol has been focused on head, neck and oesophageal cancer. In a pooled analysis of 13 case-control studies of combined oral cavity and pharynx cancer, it was revealed that cancer risk did not decrease until a minimum of 10 years after the cessation of alcohol consumption. After 16 years of not consuming alcohol, cancer risk for ex-drinkers was still higher than for those who never consumed alcohol 7. Studies investigating the risk of oesophageal cancer yielded similar results with cancer risk not approaching that of those who never consumed alcohol until at least 15 years after the cessation of alcohol use7.
So, I bet you’ve definitely forgotten about that alcoholic beverage considering the cancer risk involved with even just the occasional drink. It is clear from the studies that even when you stop consuming alcohol, your cancer risk is still not immediately decreased. It may take many years for your risk to go back to that of a person who never consumed alcohol. This is even more reason to not use the ‘I’ll start from tomorrow’ excuse and start taking care of your health today.