Study ties cancer deaths to alcohol

Risks, benefits vary among population groups
2013-02-25T17:16:00Z 2013-02-25T17:22:51Z Study ties cancer deaths to alcoholISABELLE DILLS Napa Valley Register
February 25, 2013 5:16 pm  • 

Consuming alcohol — even in moderation — increases the risk of dying from cancer, according to a recent study. Researchers also stated that the link between alcohol and cancer development is often “underemphasized” by doctors.

The study, published in mid-February in the American Journal of Public Health, states that alcohol is responsible for approximately 20,000 cancer deaths each year in the U.S. — equivalent to about 3.5 percent of all U.S. cancer deaths, according to a news release from the Boston University Medical Center.

Researchers from that medical center, the National Cancer Institute, the Alcohol Research Group, and others reported the findings after examining recent data on alcohol consumption and cancer mortality.

Breast cancer was the most common cause of alcohol-related cancer deaths in women, accounting for about 6,000 deaths annually, according to the study. Cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus were common causes of alcohol-related cancer deaths in men, resulting in a total of about 6,000 annual deaths, according to the news release.

Researchers also found that alcohol-related cancer deaths accounted for an average of 18 years of potential life lost.

While heavy alcohol use led to a higher cancer risk, the study found that an average consumption of 1.5 drinks per day or fewer accounted for 30 percent of all alcohol-related cancer deaths.

David Nelson, the lead author of the study, said he was not surprised by the findings, because alcohol is known to be a carcinogen that causes cancer.

“There is no minimum or safe level when it comes to cancer and alcohol use,” Nelson said in a phone interview with the Napa Valley Register.

Exactly why alcohol increases cancer risk is not fully understood. One theory is that DNA becomes damaged as alcohol is broken down in the body. Indirectly, alcohol may also raise estrogen levels, increase body weight, or contribute to deficiencies in folate, which may lead to an increased risk of breast or gastrointestinal cancers, said Dr. Ethan Schram, of St. Helena Hospital’s Martin-O’Neil Cancer Center.

While the cancer risk associated with drinking alcohol is “in plain sight,” Nelson said the general public seems mostly unaware of it. He said scientific researchers haven’t done enough to get the message out.

Dr. Doug Wilson, a Napa physician who specializes in family medicine, said the study should be taken into careful consideration by moderate drinkers — especially women.

“Women should ask themselves if the pleasure they’re getting from (drinking) is worth the risk,” he said.

Wilson added that it’s never too late to start making healthier choices.

“Any decrease in (alcohol) consumption is a decrease in risk,” he said.

When contacted by the Napa Valley Register, the Napa Valley Vintners trade association declined comment, stating that its officials do not have medical expertise and do not typically comment on these kinds of studies.

Dr. Arthur Klatsky, an adjunct investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research, questioned some of the study’s findings.

Heavy drinking is known to increase the risk of developing certain cancers, such as those of the mouth, liver, breast, colon and rectum, Klatsky said. Light or moderate drinking “slightly” increases the risk of breast cancer, but its effect on other forms of cancer is “not as clear-cut,” Klatsky said.

For men and women over the age of 50, Klatsky said the benefits of moderate amounts of alcohol generally outweigh the risks. But advice needs to be “individualized,” he said.

“One size does not fit all,” Klatsky said.

An older man at risk for cardiovascular disease, for example, would benefit from moderate drinking, Klatsky said. But a young woman with little risk of cardiovascular disease should limit or avoid alcohol to lower her odds of developing breast cancer.

Schram, of the Martin-O’Neil Cancer Center, agreed that the results of the study should be kept “in perspective.”

“Alcohol is socially and culturally an important part of life here in Napa Valley and many places in the country,” he said. “The risk of being in a fatal accident on the road is five times higher than the risk of cancer death in moderate drinkers.”

While the fear of developing cancer may motivate some people to quit or cut back, Schram said the risk is not high enough for most moderate drinkers to change their alcohol intake.

“It’s important to keep in mind ... that the vast majority of moderate drinkers do not develop cancer and never will,” Schram said. “I personally tell my patients that they can do most anything in moderation — except smoking.”

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(9) Comments

  1. theartofwine
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    theartofwine - February 25, 2013 7:03 pm
    Who wrote this article and why would the newspaper choose to entitle the article with what ultimately was the wrong conclusion according to doctors? Everything potentially causes cancer and every study I have read still cannot find a definitive link between wine and cancer, even breast cancer. My younger sister (early 40s) was just diagnosed with breast cancer and does not drink, yet I enjoy wine each night with no cancer. There are too many other variables (as seen further down in the article) and also the author finally admits that wine can actually help other conditions. There are numerous people who have enjoyed wine throughout their lives (see the Mondavis) and lived healthy and long lives. This type of article infuriates me because it simply does not have any proof to support it, or if there is "proof" it is discredited by the next study that finds that wine is actually healthy. Bottom line... enjoy life, be healthy and stop worrying about the so-called experts or reports.
  2. anothervoice
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    anothervoice - February 25, 2013 8:55 pm
    Agree, Look at coffee: used to be bad for us, now it is good for us. Wine, alcohol in moderation of course, is probably good for us too, helping to keep our arteries clear. And I wonder how many of the people this article was about also smoke, which really does cause cancer. But I just don't see how newspapers find enough stuff to write about to fill them up every single day of the year. I guess this type of article is one of them.
  3. rocketman
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    rocketman - February 26, 2013 5:22 am
    About a week or so ago I heard one of the doctors on a daily medical show tell the audience that if you are not otherwise killed in some type of accident you will eventuall die from either some sort of heart condition or cancer. I agree with theartofwine and anothervoice. Most will tell you to drink in moderation as the benefits out way the possible negatives.

    I also agree that time and time again we are told one day that something is bad for you and the next we are told that it is OK.............


    I believe that there is more harm from the stress that these experts cause then there is from the consumption of something they tell you is now bad for you.
  4. BennyD
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    BennyD - February 26, 2013 7:38 am
    A healthy diet with fruits and vegetables helps reduce cancer. Wine consumed as an everyday beverage with dinner usually is watered down as done in Italy and the rest of Europe. Today's high alcohol wines are not beneficial for that use, they are special occasion wines.
  5. rocketman
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    rocketman - February 26, 2013 8:30 am
    ..........so do we die of cancer or heart disease???

    By Matthew Herper, Forbes Staff

    Patients who ate a “Mediterranean” diet rich in nuts or extra virgin olive oil as well as vegetables and wine had 30% fewer heart attacks, strokes, or deaths from cardiovascular disease than those that ate a diet that simply lowered their intake of dietary fat. The result, cardiologists say, is likely to change what doctors advise patients who are at risk of cardiovascular disease to eat. The study is being published in the New England Journal of Medicine and presented at the International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition in Loma Linda, Calif.

    .Did they say consume wine??
  6. selim_sivad
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    selim_sivad - February 26, 2013 11:32 am
    On a long enough time line, everyone's survival rate is 0%. People can try to stay on top of health trends & fads, but at the end of the day the most consistent message for living longer is to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits & vegetables, get some exercise, and keep the bad stuff to a minimum. If you don't do one of those three things you might end up with a problem or two.

    However, panicking everyone over every little thing that can possibly be carcinogenic is a bit silly. You've gotta live a little, or else life isn't worth living.
  7. anothervoice
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    anothervoice - February 26, 2013 11:41 am
    Nicely written, all the above. And we all know the New England Journal of Medicine is the highly respected medical information source and documentation. It makes me happy to know there are still a lot of us who just do not believe everything that is written these days and a lot of it conflicts with the subject matters. I just saw a cartoon someone put on FB yesterday that shows a picture of a newsman saying "we can make you believe anything if we just preface our news with....."the latest study shows that............." Well, not me and I don't think you either. Question Everything.
  8. Plokij
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    Plokij - February 26, 2013 12:59 pm
    This is a recent finding? Why don't they do some more research on smoking to see if it causes cancer? Great article for a Wine Capital Town!
  9. vocal-de-local
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    vocal-de-local - February 27, 2013 1:12 am
    A STRONG connection exists between cancer and alcohol consumption. You people can be in denial but study after study proves it.

    More likely, studies done to prove a health association with alcohol are small and may be funded by special interest.

    Personally, I do not want to die from cancer. I've seen relatives slowly die from these diseases. It's not a good way to go. I plan on cutting back on alcohol consumption to "once in a very rare while". You're all adults and you have been forewarned about the consequences. Please don't try to convince other people that these studies are in error. Someday we will look back and see alcohol more strongly associated with cancer than we ever imagined. Long time ago, people were convinced that cigarette smoking was not unhealthy. There were huge efforts by tobacco interests to undermine studies. Alcohol interests will do the same thing. Just watch.

    If you have a family history of breast or colon cancer, absolutely heed this warning.
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