People tend to think that because alcohol is legal, it is a benign substance. Nothing could be further from the truth. An astounding statistic from the American Cancer Society reveals that 6% of ALL cancers and 4% of all cancer deaths in the United States are related to alcohol. Add to that smoking and body weight, and the picture gets more complicated and dim. For the focus of this blog, we will concentrate on alcohol and cancers.

Alcohol use linked to cancers include:

  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Voice Box
  • Esophagus
  • Liver
  • Colon and Rectum
  • Breast

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in women. Higher estradiol levels in women’s blood levels lead to a higher risk of breast cancer. In women, alcohol can severely impact their health, increasing their risk of developing breast cancer. Furthermore, lifestyle has a profound impact on the risk of developing cancer: healthy body weight, limited alcohol intake, physical activity, and smoking, family genetics and economic and social status, for example.

What is the Link Between Alcohol and Cancer?

Recommendations from governmental organizations and cancer organizations indicate that women have no more than one drink a day and men have no more than two drinks a day. The chemical ethanol, commonly known as alcohol, is the principal ingredient in alcoholic beverages. It is an organic chemical compound that is the natural byproduct of fermentation. In alcohol, the ethanol breaks down into acetaldehyde, another chemical compound known to be a carcinogen (a toxic substance related to cancer in animals and humans). “This compound [acetaldehyde] damages DNA and stops our cells from repairing the damage. This compound [will] allow cancerous cells to grow.” DNA cells are the instruction manual for normal cell growth and function.

Additionally, alcohol negatively affects levels of hormones. In women, estrogen levels are altered. “Hormones act as messengers that tell our cells to grow and divide. The more cells divide, the more chances there are for something to go wrong and for cancer to develop.” Once the DNA is damaged and the cancer cells are stimulated, cancer cells grow unchecked by the body’s immune system; these cells can avoid detection by the body’s immune system. Alcohol stimulates “what is called the epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition, in which run-of-the-mill cancer cells morph into a more aggressive form and begin to spread throughout the body.”

Research also demonstrates that people “who use both alcohol and tobacco have much greater risks of developing cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), and esophagus.” Research on colon cancer among men has found that increased risk of disease is higher among moderate to heavy drinkers compared to those male non-drinkers. 

Evidence That Alcohol Drinking Can Cause Cancer

Statistics tell the story about the links between moderate to heavy drinking and various cancers.

  • Head and Neck cancer: 1) moderate drinkers have a 1.8-fold higher risk of oral cavity and pharynx cancer 2) heavy drinkers have a 5-fold higher risk of larynx cancers
  • Esophageal cancer: 1) 1.3-fold higher for light drinking to 5-fold higher risk for heavy drinking 2) People who inherit a deficiency in an enzyme that metabolizes alcohol have a substantially increased risk of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma if they consume alcohol
  • Liver cancer: a 2-fold high increased risk of two liver cancers for those who are heavy drinkers
  • Breast cancer: 1) a 1.23-fold higher risk for females who drink in moderation, 2) a 1.6-fold higher risk for those females who are heavy drinkers.
  • Colorectal cancer (colon and rectum) 1.2-to-1.5-fold increased risk in heavy alcohol consumption compared to nonalcoholic drinkers.

It is important to understand that cutting back, or better yet, returning to a non-alcohol consumption lifestyle reduces the risks of cancer though the risk reduces slowly. Alcohol use and smoking in patients diagnosed with cancer have less chance of improved head and neck cancer diagnosis after treatment.

Alcohol and Cancer Treatments

The links between a variety of cancers and alcohol consumption have been studied repeatedly. Studies continue. However, for our discussion, it is also important to address what happens to the person who continues to drink while receiving treatment for cancer.  Some drug interactions with alcohol are serious. Sometimes, alcohol and chemotherapy can increase neuropathy symptoms (neuropathy is damage to one or more nerves resulting in numbness, tingling, muscle weakness, etc.).

Positive mental health during cancer treatment is crucial for positive outcomes. While many people believe they feel more relaxed and happier while drinking, they do not realize that alcohol is a depressant. Alcohol can exacerbate other issues associated with cancer treatments such as disrupting sleep patterns and worsening side effects such as dehydration, nausea, and vomiting.

Finally, chemotherapy must be metabolized through the liver, however, alcohol is also metabolized through the liver and can interfere with the liver’s ability to metabolize toxins. Especially during chemotherapy, alcohol can cause liver inflammation, and this can interrupt the impact of the chemotherapy.

“Another potential issue is that mouth sores are a common side effect of chemo and radiation therapies, and alcohol (including the alcohol in mouthwash) can exacerbate those mouth sores. Alcohol decreases the availability of essential nutrients that protect against cancer. These include A, C, D, E, and B vitamins.”  Alcohol consumption during cancer treatment may increase the length of time of the treatment, as it interferes with both the body’s immune system, and its ability to remove toxins through the liver. According to Penn State Health News, alcohol consumption during treatment may also increase the number of surgical procedures required-not to mention the costs associated with additional procedures and treatments.

It is best to reduce or eliminate your alcohol consumption. However, should you require help with alcohol abuse, Coastal Detox is here to provide you with a medically supervised detox, a comprehensive evaluation, and a treatment program that can help lead you back to health. It is best to speak with a knowledgeable staff member to answer all your questions. Do not let fear stop you from taking the most critical step of your life and the ability to regain control of your body and your future.