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Is Any Amount of Alcohol Good For Us?

Cancer Risk

There’s less debate among researchers about the role alcohol plays in cancer risk. The WHO declared alcohol a carcinogen in 1988, and U.S. government health agencies have reached the same conclusion.

Alcohol is known to cause several types of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, colon-rectum, liver, and female breast. According to the National Cancer Institute, the more you drink, the greater your risk of these types of cancer. For example, people who have three and a half or more drinks a day double or even triple their odds of head and neck cancers.

For two cancers, though -- renal cell, or kidney, cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma -- studies have shown that drinking can result in a lower risk.

Still, an estimated 3.5% of U.S. cancer deaths can be traced to alcohol.

Unfortunately, says oncologist Cary Presant, MD, few people get the message.

“There’s a very low level of awareness of the risk,” says Presant, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. “We have to counsel our patients on the risks of alcohol. It’s something I talk about with my patients all the time.”

Alcohol requires a balancing act, he says. It may offer some protection for the heart, but, because alcohol affects many other organ systems, Presant says, it also raises the risk of other diseases, including cancer. For example, he says, two drinks a day raises a woman’s risk of breast cancer by 15%. The risk is much lower for women who have one or fewer drinks per day.

Presant advises people who drink to consider potential risk factors, such as a family history of certain cancers, that may help determine whether or not to abstain.

“Talk to your doctor about your family health history, your health habits, and, if necessary, about how to correct unhealthy drinking habits,” Presant says. He adds that all forms of alcohol appear to carry the same risks.

Shapiro says the health benefits are likely to be quite limited, especially when weighed against the potential for abuse. “If you drink, make sure you know what healthy drinking looks like,” he says.

One drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men is a mostly safe and potentially healthy way to unwind.

But if you don’t drink now, don’t reach for the bottle.

“The medical community still does not advise people to start drinking,” Moore says.

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