HomeOpinion & AnalysisAlcohol and cancer, am I at risk?

Alcohol and cancer, am I at risk?


Michelle C Madzudzo

Human beings’ relationship with alcohol stretches back to thousands of years, but this long relationship is not a healthy one. We know that alcohol is damaging to our health in a number of ways.  As Talk Cancer Zim we are most concerned about the risk it poses for cancer.

Does alcohol consumption increase cancer risk?

Cancer risk starts to increase with each small amount of alcohol intake. The more you cut down on alcohol consumption, the more you reduce the risk. Research shows that excessive drinking of alcohol increases risk of cancer, whether you drink it all at once or spread through the week. Whatever your drinking habits, cutting down on alcohol consumption will reduce cancer risk. Cutting down on alcohol consumption has other benefits than reducing cancer risk, including risk of accidents, high blood pressure and liver disease.

What cancers can it cause?

Not everyone who drinks alcohol will develop cancer but people who drink alcohol are most likely to develop certain cancers. Although it is not understood why alcohol can cause some cancers and not others, the following cancers can be attributed to alcohol use:

  • Bowel
  • Breast
  • Larynx
  • Pharynx
  •  Pancreatic
  •  Esophagus.

Heavy alcohol drinking can cause cirrhosis of the liver which can lead to liver cancer.

It is important to note that it’s the alcohol itself that cause damage leading to any of these cancers. What type of alcohol one drinks does not really matter.

A few theories on why alcohol causes cancer

Scientists have not identified any mechanism that explains why alcohol intake increases the risk of developing cancer. However, they have identified a number of factors likely to play a role:

  • Acetaldehyde

When you drink, the alcohol in your body is converted into a toxic chemical acetaldehyde which damages your cells, leading to cancer.

  • Oestrogen and other hormones

Alcohol increases levels of hormones in the body, especially oestrogen which is linked to breast cancer.

  • Folate

Alcohol drinkers have low levels of folate, an important vitamin that helps cells produce new DNA correctly. Studies found out that cancers are more common in people with low levels of folate in blood.

  • Calories

Alcohol packs a lot of calories, obesity, and overweight raises cancer risk.

Are there health benefits of drinking alcohol?

In Zimbabwe, alcohol consumption has become a public health problem and it’s worrisome that the substance is now being abused especially by the youth.

Despite some possible benefits for ischaemic heart disease and diabetes from consuming low amounts of alcohol, harmful alcohol consumption has been linked to more than 200 diseases and injuries. These include cirrhosis, infectious diseases, cardiovascular diseases, early dementia, fetal alcohol syndrome and cancers.

Some studies have shown that drinking a little alcohol may be good for one’s health due to a group of chemical compounds called polyphenols. But did you know that you can find these compounds in a lot of other things such as fruit, particularly berries?

My advice is you should eat plenty of fruit and vegetables to maintain a healthy body.

Most recent research has found that any protective effect of alcohol is outweighed by associated health risk.

How much is too much?

We have been told a lot in recent years about the protective effect of moderate alcohol use. It is a message that people are eager to hear.

When drunk to excess and over a long period of time, alcohol can damage the liver as well as increase cancer risk. But no matter how much alcohol causes cancer, one thing is clear, people still want to know, how much alcohol is too much?

When it comes to alcohol consumption, regular and repeated exposure for decades adds up to making a difference in cancer risk.

What’s clear is that the biggest dangers come if you have more than four drinks a day for years.

  • One drink can be any of the following
  • a 1,5 ounce shot of liquor
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 12 ounces of beer count as one drink
  •  moderate drinking is up to one for women and up to two for men per day.

Generally, the more you drink, the greater your cancer odds. Heavy drinkers, who down two or three drinks everyday, are most likely to get cancer.

The best way to reduce the risk of cancer from alcohol is to drink less of it, whether that is by having more alcohol-free days every week, swapping some glasses of booze for soft drinks during a night out, or increase low strength drinks.

In conclusion

I am forced to conclude that the health risks of drinking alcohol far outweigh the so-called benefits. Don’t fool yourself that your moderate drinking is good for you, it facilitates social interaction, yes it makes you temporarily less anxious — but good for your health, seems doubtful.

My parting shot to every beer-loving Zimbabwean, limit the amount of alcohol you consume and always maintain a healthy weight and exercise regularly and eat lots of fruit and vegetables. That’s your best bet for good health.

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