Alcohol increases your risk of cancer: Confusing studies; what to do

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Well, here we go.  Many recent studies, including one I referenced Wednesday, have lauded drinking alcohol for its heart and stroke benefits.  Now comes a large British study saying, “not so fast.”  Any alcohol at all may increase risk of cancer.

The study was done in women, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t apply to men, also. 

It’s of significance because it included so many women–1,280,296, to be exact, followed over 7 1/2 years.

The more they drank, the more they were at increased risk for cancers of the breast, oral cavity, pharynx, larynx and esophagus.  They actually found drinking alcohol decreased the risk for kidney, thyroid and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  But overall, each additional drink per day increased total cancer risk by 15 per thousand.  (Thirteen percent of the above cancers could be attributed to alcohol)

Is alcohol going to be the new coffee, with studies showing harm or benefit on a regular basis?  Probably not.

The take-home message from this one is if you have a direct history, family history, or any other increased risk of cancer (i.e., smoking), be a teetotaler.  If your risk is high for heart disease or stroke, consider continuing that daily drink (I still can’t bring myself to recommend starting—anyone ever heard of alcoholism?)

For all the rest of us, I don’t think the occasional drink can be considered unhealthy.  Maybe the risks/benefits cancel themselves out.

What do you think?

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6 Responses to “Alcohol increases your risk of cancer: Confusing studies; what to do”

  1. Steve Parker, M.D. Says:

    I think you’re recommendation nailed it, Dr. Hubbard.

    On the other hand, maybe we should look at whether judicious consumption increases lifespan, on average. Maybe the benefit of reduced cardiovacular disease outweighs the risks of increased cancer. Several studies suggest lifespan is indeed increased. Looking at familial predisposition to various diseases is a great idea.

    As they say, more studies are needed . . .

    -Steve

    Steve Parker, M.D.s last blog post..Which Diet Is Better for Weight Loss: Low-Carb or Low-Fat?

  2. Sagan Says:

    I like your perspective on this. I’d also be really interested in learning what the cancer rates are in a place like France where they drink lots of wine on a regular basis.

    I like a glass of wine every now and then, but I’m not a regular drinker. And wine is pretty much the only form of alcohol I DO drink (though that’s in part because I drank way too much in high school… *shudder*).

    Sagans last blog post..Poll: The Milk Debate

  3. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Thanks Dr. Parker. Overall lifespan is definitely the bottom line.

  4. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Sagan, good point. I am not sure but I think the breast cancer rates of US and France are similar

  5. Dr. J Says:

    I don’t drink any alcohol, and never have. Neither of my parents drank and it probably influenced me. So now, I view alcohol as a poison. If I drank, I would probably say it’s OK at whatever level I consumed it. That’s the way people who drink alcohol think, from what I’ve seen. Interesting isn’t it?

    Dr. Js last blog post..Crumbs: Items to brief or quirky to classify as Nibbles

  6. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Dr. J, yes, interesting. I think people do the the same way about a lot of things. Thanks

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