Alcohol and Cancer Risk: Moving Beyond the Hype

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Editor’s Note: This article is a part of an Op-Ed series, “Second Opinion,” where patient experts and health writers share their take on current research, news, and trends in health and medicine. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions or views of HealthCentral.com.

You may have heard national broadcast media report the week of November 6, 2017 about a link between alcohol consumption and cancer. Like most news these days, this “breaking story” — based on a November 7, 2017 statement from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) — was summed up in a few short sentences by the news anchor, taking maybe 20 seconds of airtime.

The gist of the story? Drinking alcohol increases your risk for certain cancers.

Now, if you’re someone who drinks — anything from the occasional glass of wine to a six-pack every night — you probably felt a shiver of concern. “I like to drink, but I’m scared of cancer. What’s this all about?”

Maybe you Googled “alcohol cancer risk” and came up with a collection of news stories focused on ASCO’s statement. If you’re a woman, you’re probably most concerned with breast cancer, and you found that one small glass of wine a day can raise your risk for breast cancer by 5 percent (prior to menopause) and up to 9 percent if you’re post-menopausal.

WOW. That seems significant, doesn’t it? Maybe you should quit drinking.

But… you LOVE wine with dinner. Or a beer after work. Or a couple of margaritas with your pals on a summer afternoon.

What’s a person feeling responsible about his or her health to do?

Review risks

Look at the bare facts, not the over-hyped possibilities. The ASCO information is certainly accurate; but in order to interpret it, you need some context.

The ASCO statement notes that the alcohol/cancer link is most apparent in certain cancers: breast, colorectal, liver, esophageal, voice box, and mouth/throat. Drinking alcohol can increase your risk of these cancers, and “The more you drink, the higher the risk,” noted Clifford Hudis, M.D., ASCO’s CEO.

In fact, the heaviest drinkers (eight or more drinks a week for women, 15 or more for men) raise their risk up to 500 percent for mouth, throat, and certain esophageal cancers; 300 percent for larynx cancer, and 200 percent for liver cancer.

Key context

But here’s the context: According to government cancer statistics, if you’re 40 years old, your chance of developing esophageal cancer over the next 30 years is .21 percent — that is, about two out of every 1,000 people will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Drink heavily, and you’re five times more likely to have esophageal cancer, which brings your risk to about 1 percent: one in 100.

And that’s for the heaviest drinkers; light to moderate drinkers raise their risk less.

Let’s look at breast cancer, where the increased risk for even light drinkers sounds significant: 5 to 9 percent, depending on menopausal status. If you’re 40 years old, your risk of developing breast cancer by the time you’re 70 is 6.84 percent. Raise that risk by 5 percent, and it goes to 7.18 percent; raise it by 9 percent (for women who’ve been through menopause), and it’s now 7.46 percent.

See where I’m heading here? A 9 percent increase may sound like a lot, but when applied to your real risk for breast cancer, it translates to going from 6.84 to 7.46 percent: just over half a percentage point. Put in real terms, your risk goes from just under 7 in 100 to about 7.5 in 100.

Let’s put some context around those other cancers mentioned in ASCO’s statement: If you’re 40 years old and without any apparent risk factors, here’s your chance of being diagnosed with the following cancers over the next 30 years:

  • Colorectal cancer, 1.74 percent

  • Liver cancer, .52 percent

  • Mouth/throat cancer, .61 percent

  • Laryngeal cancer, .17 percent

Life (and death) are all about risk and possibility, cost and benefit. Do you enjoy drinking? Look at your real risk of alcohol giving you cancer, rather than the remote possibility.

Then again, if you decide to keep drinking, remember: there are many ways beyond cancer that alcohol can ruin your life, from addiction to serious accidents. Be sensible. Enjoy your glass of wine without guilt — but also drink responsibly.

See more helpful articles:

Risks and Benefits: Understanding the Statistics That Affect You

Determining Your Breast Cancer Risk

10 Surprising Ways to Reduce Your Cancer Risk