Even casual drinking increases cancer risk

Although research has demonstrated that all types of alcohol consumption increase cancer risk, most people (including doctors) aren’t aware of this. Now, the American Society of Clinical Oncology has issued a statement to help raise awareness on this issue — they want you to know that even drinking in moderation can be dangerous.

Not your friend — even moderate consumption of alcohol raises cancer risks.

The correlation between alcohol consumption and cancer risk has been long established; an estimated 5.5% of new cancer cases worldwide are associated with drinking, especially in the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, breast, and colon.

“Although this association has been established for a long time, most oncologists and most laypeople and most cancer patients are not aware of the risk,” she says. “This was an opportunity for us to raise awareness.”

While moderate consumption poses risks, abusing alcohol is much more dangerous. Several types of cancer show a direct correlation with alcohol consumption, and because it is so seemingly innocent and socially acceptable, it can be quite hazardous.

The problem, researchers say, is that most people aren’t aware of these risks; or if they are, they simply disregard them. It’s not necessarily that people shouldn’t drink, it’s about considering all the positives and negatives of drinking. University of Wisconsin oncologist Noelle LoConte, explains:

“It’s really about moderation — knowing your risk, making your decisions based on that knowledge,” LoConte says. “I liken it to melanoma. We know sun exposure increases your risk of skin cancer, but we don’t tell patients, ‘Don’t go outside.’ We just say, ‘Consider wearing sunblock, long sleeves, that kind of thing.’”

The statement also highlights strategies that could tackle hardcore drinking and as a result, cancer incidence. For instance, they suggest regulating the number and density of alcoholic drinks in bars, regular screening for medical patients, and strengthening laws on underage drinking.

They also condemn the alcohol industry for misleading the public, using labeling to “raise awareness” on cancers, such as using pink labels to support Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. This is akin to a tobacco company using packaging to raise awareness about lung cancer, LoConte says.

The statement also discusses another often disregarded aspect: alcohol’s purported health benefits. While some studies have found cardiovascular benefits of moderate alcohol consumption (especially red wine), these benefits don’t offset the cancer risks. Furthermore, many of these benefits have been debunked by the so-called abstainer bias. Basically, many non-drinkers don’t drink because they have other health problems or because they’re recovering from addiction. This skews the data making the drinkers seem more healthy than they really are — relatively to non-drinkers. In other words, it’s not that the alcohol consumers are healthier, it’s that the non-consumers are less healthy.

The bottom line is simple: alcohol consumption increases cancer risk. If you’re a drinker, it’s not that you have to quit, but remember that moderation is your friend — and if you’re not a drinker, don’t start now.

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