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Even moderate drinking may increase cancer risk

This week, the BBC reports on new research findings that demonstrate how even light consumption of alcohol can increase cancer risk – but the risk primarily affects women.

The US research, published in the British Medical Journal this month, is titled “Light to moderate intake of alcohol, drinking patterns, and risk of cancer” and sets out “to quantify risk of overall cancer across all levels of alcohol consumption among women and men separately, with a focus on light to moderate drinking and never smokers; and assess the influence of drinking patterns on overall cancer risk.”

The study brought together results from two large surveys of US adults – all health professionals – over a period of 30 years, with the number of participants totalling over 120,000. More than 26,000 cancers were recorded in the study group during this period. This information was compared to drinking habits, which were assessed via a series of questionnaires. Smoking habits were also taken into account.

In the introduction to the study, the authors state: “Extensive literature has documented the J-shaped [ie exponential] associations between alcohol intake and a variety of diseases, including multiple cardiovascular outcomes (such as congestive heart failure and stroke) as well as diabetes and all cause mortality, and possibly coronary heart disease. Light to moderate drinkers have a lower risk of these disorders than abstainers, and heavy drinkers are at the highest risk.” Whilst acknowledging that moderate intake of alcohol may be potentially beneficial for some conditions according to recent research, the authors add: “the potential benefits of alcohol consumption have to be weighed against the other possible health risks, and cancer is a major concern.”

An increased risk was found to be present for both men and women – but not equally. The study concludes: “Light to moderate drinking is associated with minimally increased risk of overall cancer. For men who have never smoked, risk of alcohol related cancers is not appreciably increased for light and moderate drinking (up to two drinks per day). However, for women who have never smoked, risk of alcohol related cancers (mainly breast cancer) increases even within the range of up to one alcoholic drink a day.”

Gordon Wishart, Professor of Cancer Surgery and Medical Director of Check4Cancer, comments: “There is now plenty of evidence to show that the risk of breast cancer, in particular, is directly proportional to alcohol intake. Drinking patterns in women are very different in this generation from previous generations, and it seems likely that we have not even begun to see the impact of binge drinking in young girls. The fact that even moderate drinking increases risk will, I hope, help send the message that alcohol intake is a serious cause for concern, and we need to ensure that this message gets across. Women themselves are the first line of defence when it comes to breast health, not only by detecting unusual changes in their own bodies, but also moderating lifestyle factors that affect risk. When it comes to early detection of cancer, this new information will also help all clinicians to fine-tune their risk assessment criteria, and that, ultimately, will save lives.”

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