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To Your Health: The tie between alcohol and cancer risk

Alcohol is part many holiday traditions but overindulging can increase cancer risk experts say.  |  File photo

Alcohol is part of many holiday traditions, but overindulging can increase cancer risk, experts say. | File photo

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Updated: January 12, 2014 6:18AM



Festive holiday cocktails, eggnog in the punch bowl or a toast to the New Year can be fun traditions this time of year, but they also can mean a bit more drinking than usual for many people.

Having one drink at a party isn’t likely to cause much harm for most people. But routinely having more than one or two drinks per day could raise cancer risk.

The American Cancer Society recommends that women who drink alcohol have no more than one drink a day and men no more than two. These limits are for every day, and do not mean that drinking more on fewer days of the week is OK.

A lot of research has provided evidence that drinking alcohol increases the risk of several cancers, including those of the mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, liver, colon and rectum, and breast. Studies focusing on the connection between alcohol and pancreatic cancer are finding evidence that heavy drinking raises the risk for that cancer type as well.

And smoking and drinking together causes even more harm, raising the risk far more than either smoking or drinking alone for cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box and esophagus.

How does alcohol cause cancer?

Beer, wine and hard liquor all contain ethanol, which is believed to be the ingredient in alcohol that’s responsible for raising cancer risk.

In the mouth and throat, alcohol may act as an irritant, damaging cells that may try to repair themselves and leading to DNA changes that can be a step toward cancer.

In the colon and rectum, bacteria can convert alcohol into a chemical called acetaldehyde, which also can damage DNA and lead to cancer.

As for breast cancer, drinking alcohol can increase the level of estrogen and other hormones in the blood, and hormones play a key role in the development of many breast cancers.

Some people could reduce their risk of cancer by drinking less alcohol. People who are at particularly high risk for cancer should talk to their doctor about not drinking alcohol or limiting the amount they drink to help reduce their risk.

Learn more about the link between alcohol and cancer from Dr. Susan, M. Gapstur, vice president of epidemiology for the American Cancer Society, in her Expert Voices blog by visiting www.cancer.org.



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