Can Alcohol Really Cause Cancer?

Can Alcohol Really Cause Cancer?

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Alcohol's Little-Known Connection to Cancer

This post was originally published on October 21, 2016.

The downsides to alcohol abuse are as numerous as they are well-known: lost jobs, liver problems, DUIs, ruined relationships, money issues—and the list goes on ad infinitum. Countless research studies, courses, textbooks, professional journals, websites and everything in between have been dedicated to the subject. What’s not as well-documented about alcohol, however, is its medically proven connection to cancer. That’s right: booze and the “Big C” have a long, complicated relationship. A recent Sunday Guardian story explored this little-known link, which reveals as much about human health as it does about the alcoholics’ willingness to ignore every sign and study imaginable to chase down their next buzz.

Does Booze Really Cause Cancer?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), headquartered in France, ruled in 1988 that alcohol is a “proven human carcinogen.” It was a landmark decision that, oddly, remains quiet and largely unknown across the world to this day. In other words, alcohol causes cancer in all the same ways that radiation, certain pesticides, inhaled asbestos and cigarette smoke do. The IARC, a research arm of the World Health Organization of the United Nations, is something of a global watchdog when it comes to cancer—its sole purpose is to catalog every single factor that increases cancer risks. “Since 1971, more than 900 agents have been evaluated, of which more than 400 have been identified as carcinogenic, probably carcinogenic, or possibly carcinogenic to humans,” the agency’s website says. Four different classifications of carcinogens exist, with alcohol falling into “Group 1”—the IARC’s highest risk category—alongside tobacco, engine exhaust, solar radiation, plutonium and mustard gas, among other eye-opening inclusions.

And yet, while weapons-grade plutonium requires the heaviest military clearances imaginable (unless you’re Doc Brown in Back to the Future, having made shady dealings with Libyans to power your time-travel machine), chances are good that you’re within a several-mile radius of inexpensive beer, liquor or wine at any given moment of the day. On paper, the ruling makes this seem less like a paradox than wildly irresponsible on the part of humanity. The Sunday Guardian cited an IARC press release that puts it in more perspective: “Nearly 2 billion adults worldwide are estimated to consume alcoholic beverages regularly with an average daily consumption of 13 gm of ethanol (about one drink).” For Americans, this equals 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or a shot glass of liquor. The 2 billion statistic, however, overshadows the sobering fact that “alcohol consumption has already been shown to cause cancers of oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, colorectal, liver [and]female breasts.” Either way, it is willful ignorance or not caring about the truth that drives people to keep turning to the bottle.

Where Does the US Rank?

In the US National Toxicology Program’s “Report on Carcinogens,” the US Department of Health and Human Services agreed with the IARC’s ruling, listing alcohol as a “known human carcinogen.” Similarly, the National Cancer Institute says that “research evidence indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks—particularly the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time—the higher his or her risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer.” Citing research data from 2009, the Institute claimed that 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths in the US—nearly 20,000 deaths in all—were related to alcohol. The Institute notes that “clear patterns have emerged between alcohol consumption and the development of [different]types of cancer,” including head and neck cancer as well as esophageal, liver, breast and colorectal cancer. Interestingly, “numerous studies” examined the association between other cancers (such as the pancreas, ovary, prostate and bladder) and found “no association with alcohol use.”

Worldwide, WHO contends that “50.1% of total alcohol is consumed in the form of spirits (whisky, brandy, rum, vodka etc.),” according to the Sunday Guardian article. “The second most consumed alcoholic beverage type is beer, which accounts for 34.8%, followed by wine (8%).” The article also points out that all alcoholic drinks equally increase the risk of cancer—it’s simply the amount that’s consumed that matters. As one health site observes: “There’s no ‘safe’ limit for alcohol when it comes to cancer, but the risk is smaller for people who drink within the government guidelines.” Of course, US dietary guidelines barely allow someone to catch a decently mild buzz: “Moderate alcohol drinking [is defined]as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Heavy alcohol drinking is defined as having more than three drinks on any day or more than seven drinks per week for women and more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week for men.” Even so, the US pales in comparison to Europe, which “has the highest per-capita consumption of alcohol,” the Guardian said. Belarus sits at the top of a top-10 alcohol-consuming countries list entirely dominated by Europe.

How Does Alcohol Cause Cancer?

The fact of the matter is, like anything, moderation is key. But when you’re an alcoholic, moderation is a starting point or (at best) a suggestion. As a UK cancer site said: “Not everyone who drinks alcohol will develop cancer. But on the whole, scientists have found that some cancers are more common in people who drink more alcohol than others. Every year, alcohol causes 4% of cancers in the UK, around 12,800 cases.” (The Guardian puts that number, globally, as high as 22%.) The how and the why is as almost as fuzzy as why people continue to dismiss the cold, hard facts about alcohol and cancer.

The UK health site notes that “alcohol (ethanol) is converted into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde” in our bodies, which triggers cancer by damaging DNA and stopping cells that could repair the damage. “Acetaldehyde also causes liver cells to grow faster than normal,” the same site said. “These regenerating cells are more likely to pick up changes in their genes that could lead to cancer. Ethanol is broken down mainly by the liver, but lots of other cell types can do this as well. Some of the bacteria that live in our mouths and the linings of our guts are also able to convert ethanol into acetaldehyde.” It’s like a terrifying chain reaction, constantly working to undo the human body—insidious and patient. Alcohol can also increase the number of hormones, such as estrogen, which “act as messengers in the body, giving our cells instructions such as when to divide.” As such, high levels of estrogen increases the risk of breast cancer.

Alcohol does terrible things to our bodies across the board: it “can damage the cells of the liver, causing…cirrhosis [which makes]you more likely to develop liver cancer.” Alcohol also makes it far easier for carcinogens like tobacco “to be absorbed in the mouth or the throat.” It also robs our bodies of folic acid, which “our cells need to create new DNA correctly.” The laundry list of things alcohol is capable of doing to the human body is downright terrifying—scouring out its ability to function properly and remain healthy—but what’s even scarier is our complicity in it all. Unlike the accidental fallout of, say, an atom bomb, alcohol is something we choose to consume. We do it to ourselves. While we have no one to blame but ourselves in the end, it’s worth noting that more and more government agencies (like WHO) are getting louder about their research findings. At a certain point, maybe alcoholics will find themselves bound to an infinity loop from hell: unable to escape the tractor-beam of their alcoholism while at the same time feeling the cemetery-grasp of cancer tightening on them. With a growing chorus of government warnings about alcohol and cancer, one thing is clear: for alcoholics, it’s as difficult to avoid hearing about the dangers of continued drinking as it is to avoid their own bleak futures.

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About Author

Paul Fuhr is an addiction recovery writer whose work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Live Oak Review, The Sobriety Collective and InRecovery Magazine, among others. He is the author of the alcoholism memoir “Bottleneck.” He's also the creator and co-host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and recovery. Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and their cats, Dr. No and Goldeneye.