Increased risk comes when body converts alcohol into a potent carcinogen
By Rachel Miller
UK Markey Cancer Center
LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 2, 2014) — We all know alcohol is closely linked with some major health problems, including diseases of the liver. But does alcohol also play any role in developing cancer?
Unfortunately, it appears there is a relationship between alcohol use and certain types of cancer. Scientists believe the increased risk comes when the body converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, a potent carcinogen.
According to the American Institute of Cancer Research, studies show evidence that alcohol consumption increases the risk of head and neck cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx (throat) and larynx, and the esophagus. It also is linked to colorectal and liver cancers, unsurprisingly. And for women, alcohol use may contribute to breast cancer.
If you have certain other vices, the news is even worse. Per the National Cancer Institute, those who use alcohol in combination with tobacco products have been found to greatly increase their risk of cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus, as opposed to those who use either alcohol or tobacco products alone.
How much alcohol is “safe” to consume?
There is no actual safe recommendation for alcohol consumption, though you may have heard that alcohol in moderation may reduce the risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends that if you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
“Moderation” is defined as an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. A drink is defined as one 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. of wine, 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits, or 1 oz. of 100-proof spirits.
I’m undergoing treatment for cancer — can I have a drink?
Although it may be tempting to “relax” by imbibing, if you or a loved one are undergoing cancer treatment, it’s best to avoid drinking altogether as alcohol may have some adverse effects during certain cancer treatments.
We also recommend avoiding alcohol during radiation therapy for head and neck cancer. Patients who undergo this specific treatment are already likely to experience difficulty swallowing due to the location of the radiation. Alcohol consumption can be extremely drying to the mouth and throat, which will worsen painful swallowing and will also contribute to dehydration.
Staying hydrated is very important during chemotherapy as well, so alcohol may be more detrimental during a course of chemo. Even in small amounts, alcohol can irritate mouth sores or potentially interact with any drugs you may be receiving.
Could alcohol use contribute to cancer “relapse”?
It is not yet clear whether alcohol use is linked to recurrence after cancer treatment; though, as discussed above, it may increase your risk for a new cancer.
In short, moderation is always key, but if you drink alcohol, be sure to discuss your intake with your physician.
Rachel Miller is a registered dietitian at the UK Markey Cancer Center.