Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Alcohol and Cancer

My last blog titled "Can Breast Cancer Be Prevented?" offered few clues if prevention is even possible. The reason for the lack of insight was because there are a very limited number of even close to conclusive studies available.  Therefore, imagine my delight, when yesterday a new study comes along that may shed light on a well known dietary factor that may lead to breast and other forms of cancer such as mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and rectum. That factor is alcohol.

If you are among those who think that drinking alcohol, even in moderation, poses no risks, a new report finds that alcohol is to blame for one in every 30 cancer deaths each year in the United States.
According to the study's researchers, the effects of alcohol consumption are even more pronounced with breast cancer, with 15 percent of those deaths directly related. Even worse, drinking in moderation doesn't help because 30 percent of all alcohol-related cancer deaths are linked to drinking 1.5 drinks or less a day. Quoting one of the researchers, "Alcohol is a cancer-causing agent that's in "plain sight," but people just don't see it." Study author Dr. David Nelson, director of the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the U.S. National Cancer Institute added, "As expected, people who are higher alcohol users were at higher risk, but there was really no safe level of alcohol use."

Published online Feb. 14 in the American Journal of Public Health, the study sought to determine the risks related to drinking and cancer.  The study involved the compilation of data from various sources, including the 2009 Alcohol Epidemiologic Data System, the 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and the 2009-2010 National Alcohol Survey. Both women and men were affected by alcohol with alcohol-related cancer deaths in men, accounting for about 6,000 deaths each year. The researchers estimated that each alcohol-related cancer death accounted for an average of 18 years of potential life lost.

According to the report, previous studies have shown drinking is a risk factor for cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum and, in women, breast cancer, and one expert was noted on Medline to weigh in, stating that the findings in this study are consistent with what has been shown before.
So does this mean you shouldn't drink alcohol, even in moderation? Before I answer, let me tell you my bias. I don't like alcohol and I never did. I've never had more than two drinks in my life at one time and I can say with pride that I've never been inebriated (maybe a little tipsy). Nevertheless, I'm not completely buying this study. Here's why. There is no doubt that alcohol is a toxin, poorly tolerated by several organs such as the brain, liver, etc.  It does not, however, rise to the level of causing cancer like cigarettes that are said to kill over 100,00 each year.

The reasons that alcohol may lead to cancer deaths are not well understood even by researchers.  Some studies claim that alcohol may actually be good for the heart in moderation. No one, including me advocates that one should start drinking if they aren't already in order to prevent heart disease. No one, including me can say with certainty that alcohol isn't causing cancer. I have a problem with studies that don't show cause and effect. It's not that I don't quote them often because they sometimes are the best we have and that's the problem.

My real problem is these one off studies based on compilation of data. Like I wrote in my last blog, we need to shift our research focus to figuring out more definitively what works and what doesn't work when it comes to our health and not rely on retroactive gathering of statistics. For the moment, it's the best we have so it's probably wise not to ignore it; but, I look forward to the day when we know for sure.

In the interim, if you are one of those people who are cancer-phobic, and I wish more were, my recommendation is to really limit your alcohol consumption to special occasions and to limit your consumption to one glass of alcohol (three ounces or less) when such occasions arise. My apologies to those who consume one glass or more regularly with dinner--the numbers are simply not in your corner. In fact, the researchers say their findings suggest there's no safe amount of alcohol when it comes to certain types of cancer.

Update 5.13.13.  A new meta-analysis study, a study that looks at multiple other studies to reach a conclusion, shows again that even moderate alcohol consumption ups the risk for developing breast cancer. 


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