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Spirits Raise Colon Cancer Risk

Heavy Liquor Drinkers Have Increased Risk of Colon Cancer

WebMD Health News

Oct. 15, 2003 (BALTIMORE) -- If you know what's good for you, you may want to eschew a trendy appletini in favor of a classic glass of wine.

Doctors reported here Tuesday that people who drink at least nine or more drinks a week made with distilled spirits for more than 10 years are three times more likely to develop colorectal cancer or precancerous colonic polyps than teetotalers. Distilled spirits include gin, vodka, and bourbon.

A glass or two of wine a week, on the other hand, cuts the risk of colon cancer by nearly two-thirds, the study showed.

Gurvinder Sethi, MD, of the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at Stony Brook University in New York, presented the findings at the 68th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology.

Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, killing 56,000 Americans each year, according to the American Cancer Society. It can be detected by early screening through colonoscopy, which uses a long thin scope to examine the entire length of the colon.

The researchers studied 2,000 men and women who had no visible signs of colon cancer and who underwent a colonoscopy screening. The average age of the volunteers was 57 years, nearly half were female, most were white, and 87% had completed at least one year of college. They were questioned about smoking habits and a drinking consumption.

Cancer or suspicious growths were found in the colon of 6.1% of the nondrinkers, compared with 17.4% of those who drank at least nine glasses per week of spirits for more than 10 years. When the researchers took into account factors that might increase the risks of colon cancer, such as age, sex, diet, weight, and family history, the researchers found similar results --- heavy drinkers were 3.3 times more likely to develop colon cancer.

While moderate wine drinkers -- those who drank one to eight glasses a week -- were 63% less likely to develop colon cancer, heavier wine drinking was not protective, Sethi says. Drinking beer appeared to have no effect on colon cancer risk, the study showed.

Douglas K. Rex, MD, FACG, Professor of Medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis and president of the American College of Gastroenterology, says the new study is one of several trials that showed a protective effect of red wine.

"But, in general, alcohol probably has some deleterious or negative effects [on colon cancer risk]," he says.

Nevertheless, drinking is not nearly as bad for your colon health as smoking, he says. "Cigarette smoking is often overlooked in this regard. About 20% of cases of colon cancer can be attributed to it."

Sethi says the findings raise the possibility that heavy drinkers should be screened for colon cancer more frequently and starting at any earlier age than other people.

"We still need more study. It's not etched in stone," he says. "But I'm sure anyone sitting here would be willing to participate in such a study."

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