Study: One Alcoholic Drink A Day Can Raise Cancer Risk

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Alcohol-related cancer may seem like something that would affect only heavy drinkers, but according to a new study, having even one drink per day can put you at risk for cancer. Researchers from the National Cancer Institute found that alcohol-related cancer accounted for 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States in 2009 — and even light and moderate drinkers were at significant risk.

The link between cancer and alcohol consumption has been established by previous studies, but this new study quantifies the risk, death rates, and years of life lost in a way previously unseen.

Approximately 560,000 people died from cancer in 2009, the year for which the researchers analyzed alcohol-related cancer death rates. Of those deaths, nearly 20,000 were caused by alcohol-linked cancers, according to the study, published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Alcohol-related cancer affected men and women equally in 2009, but with different cancers. While women with alcohol-related cancer were most likely to die from breast cancer, men were most likely to have died from oral, pharynx, larynx and esophageal cancer,

Alcohol-linked breast cancer deaths accounted for 15 percent of all breast cancer deaths.

While the majority – an estimated 54 percentage – of these deaths occurred in people who drank more than three alcoholic drinks per day, the researchers found that, depending on the type of cancer, up to 33 percent of people who died from alcohol-related cancer had consumed only one alcoholic drink per day on average.

While researchers are not exactly sure how alcohol may lead to cancer, it is clear that poor health habits – not just drinking – play a major role in cancer risk. Dr. David Nelson MD, study author and Director of the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the National Cancer Institute, says that people who drink a lot often also have a poor diet and/or smoke, which, coupled with alcohol use, puts them at a greater risk for developing cancer.

“There are some types of alcohol-related cancer, such as oral, where there are strong relationships between alcohol and tobacco,” he says. “Cancer is a complex disease, but as a general rule, it is safe to say that people who are smokers are less likely to live a healthy lifestyle.”

“Whether or not you drink alcohol, not smoking, being physically active, and maintaining a healthy weight can greatly lower your risk of fatal cancer as well as improve your general health," Dr. Eric Jacobs, PhD, strategic director of pharmacoepidemiology for the American Cancer Society said in the statement.

The most important thing, Nelson believes, is to make people understand that alcohol is a carcinogen. While it may be impossible to get people to stop drinking, making them aware of the dangers can help them make smarter decisions.

“We spend a lot of time talking about potential cancer-causing agents, but alcohol is missing from the discussion,” he says. “If people really want to reduce their cancer risk, one of the things they can do is avoid alcohol.”

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