Medical Moment: How drinking alcohol affects cancer risk

Published: Sep. 19, 2022 at 5:47 PM EDT
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(WNDU) - When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sales of wine, beer, and liquor surged in the U.S.

While drinking may help keep the edge off for some... Research is showing it’s not a good idea if you want to avoid cancer.

Many Americans are unaware that alcohol and cancer are linked. In fact, one survey revealed fewer than a third of adults recognized alcohol as a cancer risk factor. Yet alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of cancer behind tobacco and obesity. And, another recent study found 1 in 8 cases of breast cancer and 1 in 10 cases of colorectal and liver cancers are attributed to alcohol use.

Drinking alcohol carries many risks for cancer such as mouth and throat cancer, voice box cancer, esophageal cancer, colon and rectal cancer, liver cancer, and breast cancer in women. The CDC states the risk for cancer decreases the less alcohol you drink. Therefore, it’s recommended that adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation (two drinks or less in a day for men or one drink or less in a day for women).

The body breaks alcohol down into a chemical called acetaldehyde. This chemical damages DNA and prevents the body from repairing the damage. DNA is the cell’s instruction manual that controls a cell’s normal growth and function. When DNA is damaged, a cell can begin growing out of control and create a cancer tumor.

In 2021, Gallup reported that 60 percent of U.S. adults drank alcoholic beverages. Approximately 63 percent of men drank alcoholic beverages compared to 57 percent of women, and about 70 percent of those aged 35 to 54 years of age consumed alcohol compared to both younger and older consumers.

“Yes, colon cancer incidence is on the rise in young patients,” said Kanthi Yalamanchili, a gastroenterologist at Baylor Scott & White Grapevine. “Certainly, tobacco use is a big factor, alcohol is also a big factor.”

Several health organizations including the American Society of Clinical Oncology have called for the federal government to add a cancer warning to alcohol labels. And, the American Cancer Society has recently issued new guidelines that warn there’s no safe level of alcohol consumption for cancer prevention.

Those who do choose to drink should limit their intake to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.

Current treatment options for alcohol use disorder (AUD) attempt to change behavior by making alcohol consumption an unpleasant experience, while other options require patients to abstain for several days before beginning treatment. Researchers at UC San Francisco have discovered two new molecules, one of which is currently in clinical oncology trials, to devise a dual-drug therapy for AUD. The results in mice were highly successful.

“We could see these side effects in mice who are taking rapamycin or RapaLink-1, and then when you give Rapablock, it’s like magic, the side effects are gone,” said Dorit Ron, PhD, a professor of neurology and senior author on the study.

The researchers say that AUD and other substance abuse disorders are the result of reinforced pathways in the brain, and that those pathways can be blocked or redirected, ending cravings and habitual behavior.

“Alcohol use disorder is really a process of maladapted learning and memory,” said Ron.

She believes that tackling addiction from this neurological perspective has potential for broad applications.