A paper published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology on November 7, 2017, stated that drinking alcohol, even in small amounts, increases the risk for cancer. In a release, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) stated that between 5-6% of new cancers and cancer deaths globally were directly attributable to alcohol.
The study received press coverage from a number of outlets within the first 24 hours, including a story in Newsweek titled, “Even Light Drinking Increases Your Risk of Cancer, Doctors Warn.” The Newsweek article began with the light-hearted warning, “Happy hour just got a little bit sad with news that any alcohol (yes, that includes the glass of wine at dinner) is linked with increased cancer risk.”
A New York Times article on this issue quoted Dr. Noelle LoConte, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the lead author of the ASCO statement, who said, “The message is not, ‘Don’t drink.’ It’s, ‘If you want to reduce your cancer risk, drink less. And if you don’t drink, don’t start.” Dr. LoConte did point out that the ASCO warning is different than their stance on cigarettes, “It’s different than tobacco where we say, ‘Never smoke. Don’t start.’ This is a little more subtle.”
The ASCO conducted a National Cancer Opinion Survey earlier this year which showed that 70% of Americans were unaware that there was a link between drinking alcohol and cancer. The ASCO release points out that alcohol usage, whether light, moderate, or heavy, is linked with increasing the risk of several leading cancers, including those of the breast, colon, esophagus, and head and neck.
In the release ASCO president Bruce Johnson, MD, stated, “People typically don’t associate drinking beer, wine, and hard liquor with increasing their risk of developing cancer in their lifetimes.” He continued, “However, the link between increased alcohol consumption and cancer has been firmly established and gives the medical community guidance on how to help their patients reduce their risk of cancer.”
The ASCO paper reported that, in reviewing evidence from multiple studies, there is a conclusive link between alcohol use and several cancers, including cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, breast, and liver. Heavier drinking has been associated with lung cancer, pancreatic cancer and gastric cancer.
Dr. LaConte summed up the ASCO position by noting, “ASCO joins a growing number of cancer care and public health organizations in recognizing that even moderate alcohol use can cause cancer. The good news is that, just like people wear sunscreen to limit their risk of skin cancer, limiting alcohol intake is one more thing people can do to reduce their overall risk of developing cancer.”
The Newsweek article did offer a silver lining, although difficult, to those who enjoy regular drinking. They noted that those who drink can reduce their risk for cancer to equal those who have never drank alcohol if they stop drinking completely for a period of 20 years.