Alcohol and Cancer

Tarun Wasil, MD

Alcohol has been associated with several public health issues. When there is a
mention of an alcohol related disease or health problem, we always think of liver
disease such and liver failure secondary to cirrhosis (fibrosis) of the liver. However,it has been linked to a number of other problems including increased risk of several cancers. While smoking is the most common preventable cause of cancer, alcohol related health problems are also largely preventable. The following cancers are linked with the use of alcohol:

  1. Liver cancer
  2. Oral (mouth) cancer
  3. Esophageal cancer
  4. Pharyngeal cancer
  5. Laryngeal cancer
  6. Some studies have linked alcohol with breast, colo-rectal and pancreatic cancers
  7. Some of these cancers are also caused by smoking, and people who smoke and also drink have a higher risk for developing those cancers. American Cancer Society recommends a limit of 2 drinks per day for men and 1 per day for women. Women have a smaller body size and should consume a lesser amount of alcohol. There is a link between moderate alcohol intake and reduced heart disease. However, the same effect on reducing heart disease can be obtained by a healthier life style such as a diet low in saturated and animal fat, not smoking, and regular exercise. For people who do not drink, it is not recommended that they start drinking alcohol to achieve these potential benefits.

    There are no recommended screening guidelines for most of above cancers and when diagnosed, they are usually advanced, potentially incurable, and result in shorter life expectancy (there are screening tests for breast and colo-rectal cancers that can detect these at early stages). Treatment of oropharyngeal and laryngeal cancers is associated with significant side effects affecting patient’s quality of life for at least several months. Pancreatic cancer is the most serious and least treatable cancer, especially when diagnosed at a stage when it can-not be surgically removed.

    Liver cancer is the most common cancer associated with alcohol use. Patients with liver cirrhosis should be screened for this cancer every 6 months with a blood test (for a cancer marker called alpha feto-protein) and liver ultrasound. Such testing has potential for diagnosing these cancers at a earlier and probably curable stage by surgical resection. Medications to treat this cancer (chemotherapy or biological agents) are still in their infancy.

    In summary, smoking is not the only preventable cause of cancer. Alcohol consumption, especially, beyond the recommended limits can also result in cancer formation of several different organs in addition to many other harmful health related issues. Preventing cancer is definitely better than treating it. For some cancers, there are screening tests available to make a diagnosis at an earlier and potentially curable stage.

    For more information on any of these or related topics, you can contact American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute and American Society of Clinical Oncology amongst many other well recognized Medical Societies and Organizations.

    Tarun Wasil M.D. 516.354.2200