Alcohol & cancer: Study quantifies the impact of light drinking on certain cancers
Earlier this year, I was annoyed when “The Daily Beast” proclaimed Charleston as the “fourth drunkest city” in America, well ahead of the sin cities of New Orleans and Las Vegas.
I registered my discontent on Facebook, saying that I didn’t believe it was deserved. But I was stunned with many of the comments shot back saying it was.
Part of my apparent naivete on the subject might be because I’ve never been a boozer and don’t put myself in many situations where drinking is the main activity. It bores me.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a well-crafted beer and gravitate toward New Belgium, Guinness and our local brews from Palmetto Brewing, Westbrook or Holy City. I never drink wine and rarely drink liquor.
While the end of a day doesn’t seem complete without a beer, I rarely have more than one at night. At a social gathering, I may have two. But it’s almost like I have an internal turn-off valve.
The moderation of mine is odd, frankly, because both of my grandfathers were alcoholics.
My older brother was an alcoholic until his 40th birthday when, after a drunken celebration, he recognized his problem, quit cold turkey and probably saved himself for another 40 years.
On the flip side, my mother and father have been lifelong tee-totalers, probably due to living with alcoholic fathers.
Alcohol & cancer
So a recent study connecting light and moderate drinking to a relatively small percentage of cancer caught my eye. For years, studies have connected moderate alcohol consumption, though usually red wine, to a host of good outcomes, such as reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, gallstone formation, type 2 diabetes and dementia.
By the way, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines moderate drinking for men as two or less drinks per day and for women one drink per day.
The new study was the first to cast a shadow on what I considered “healthy” alcohol consumption.
In the study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers from the National Cancer Institute looked into the 560,000 people who died from cancer in 2009. Of those, nearly 20,000 were caused by alcohol-linked cancers.
Study authors said even light and moderate drinkers were at “significant risk.”
Alcohol-related cancer affected men and women equally, but with different cancers. Women were most likely to die from breast cancer, with alcohol being linked to about 15 percent of those deaths. Men were most likely to have died from oral, pharynx, larynx and esophageal cancer.
While the majority, an estimated 54 percent, 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.
What’s the takeaway?
Dr. Anthony Alberg, associate director for Cancer Prevention and Control at the Medical University of South Carolina Hollings Cancer Center, says that while the tie between alcohol use and cancer has been established for years, this is the first time it’s been quantified.
Alberg acknowledges that weighing the benefits of light alcohol consumption for heart health with the risks for cancer is “a matter of choice” for each individual.
Alberg says what he draws from the study is the further strength of the risks of heavy drinking, and especially the combination of smoking and drinking, for cancer.
Ultimately, to me, it underscores the need to talk more about alcohol consumption in the context of healthy living. That discussion usually includes not smoking, eating a healthy, plant-based diet, avoiding sugary drinks and foods and getting daily exercise.
Maybe we all need to think about drinking and find days to give our bodies a break from it.
Reach David Quick at 937-5516.