Alcohol found to be direct cause of cancer

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Drinking and its association with cancer risk have always had a place in the headlines; with reduced consumption long being recommended by doctors, the link between the two well known. In February 2016, Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, caused quite a stir in a parliamentary hearing defending her strict new alcohol guidelines, where she drew attention to the strong relationship between alcohol and breast cancer, saying:

“Think: Do I want the glass of wine, or do I want to raise my own risk of breast cancer? I take a decision each time I have a glass.”

Despite receiving quite a bit of flak for her sensational comment, a new study published in Addiction journal on 21 July 2016 has shone a more sobering light on the issue. Strong evidence has now been found confirming what has long been suspected in the scientific community, that alcohol is in fact a direct cause of at least seven types of cancer, including breast. The study estimated that around half a million deaths from cancer in 2012 were caused by alcohol, corresponding to around 5.8% of cancer deaths worldwide.

The study also saw a 40% increased risk of developing breast cancer and dying from it for heavy drinkers – those who regularly consume five units a day. Jennie Connor, of the preventive and social medicine department at Otago University in New Zealand which led the study, highlighted that there is no ‘safe’ level of drinking when it comes to this increased risk, saying:

“The highest risk is associated with the heaviest drinking but a considerable burden is experienced by drinkers with low to moderate consumption.”

She made it clear that for cancer prevention, it is recommended that people should not drink alcohol at all, especially for cancer survivors. However, she acknowledged that that is an unrealistic expectation, saying that “this can be easier said than done.”

Although it remains unclear exactly how alcohol causes cancer, the general consensus is that it damages DNA and prevents cell repair as well as affecting hormone levels, both of which lead to the uninhibited cell growth observed in tumours.

To learn more about the study, see The Guardian’s piece here, or for more information on alcohol and how it affects cancer risk, and what you can do to, see Cancer Research UK’s page here