Alcohol has long been recognized as a carcinogenic substance, but narrowing down exactly what primarily causes which types of cancer is a tricky task.
A researcher from the University of Otago in New Zealand has scoured through a plethora of pre-existing studies regarding alcohol and cancer, hoping to highlight alcohol’s malevolent role by ruling out other factors. Writing an opinion piece in the journal Addiction, she notes that many strands of research have shown that seven types of cancer can be directly linked to even moderate alcohol consumption: liver, mouth and throat, larynx, esophagus, colon, bowel, and breast.
Although alcohol is not the sole cause of these cancers, it is looking certain to be one of the leading ones. In fact, the author notes that alcohol-attributable cancers at these sites constitute up to 5.8 percent of cancer deaths worldwide. This means that in 2012, for example, around half a million people died through alcohol-induced cancers.
This conclusion is based on a decade’s worth of research undertaken by the World Cancer Research Fund, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization, and other respected health groups. Although not as definitive, there are also links between alcohol consumption and skin, prostate, and pancreatic cancer.
“The highest risks are associated with the heaviest drinking but a considerable burden is experienced by drinkers with low to moderate consumption, due to the distribution of drinking in the population,” notes author Jennie Connor, as reported by the Guardian.
Thus, instead of focusing on binge drinkers, health campaigns should aim their warnings at all those who consume alcohol, even infrequently. Ultimately, this study highlights that when it comes to alcohol, there is no “safe limit,” and various medical organizations around the world are beginning to broadcast this to the public on a more frequent basis.
Cancer comes in over 200 different forms, and each are caused by a variety of factors, some more influential than others. The take-home message of this particular study, as with others, is that many of these cancers are preventable, particularly when it comes to drinking and smoking. One review suggested that up to 90 percent of smoking-related cancer deaths are perfectly preventable.
In fact, this review suggested that those who smoked or drank frequently, lived a sedentary lifestyle, and were fairly overweight were at considerable risks from developing one of any type of cancer except skin, brain, lymphatic, hematologic and nonfatal prostate variants. By not smoking, almost never drinking, and keeping fit and active, the number of new cancer diagnoses in the US alone could be reduced by as much as 70 percent.
Treatment for cancer is proving to be more successful year on year, but as these studies highlight, prevention should be considered a priority.
Update: An earlier version of this article referenced Connor's research as a study, whereas it's more accurately described as an opinion piece based on decades of research on the subject.