Alcohol Linked to Cancer Risk in Women
Study Shows Even Low-to-Moderate Drinking Raises Risk of Cancer
Feb. 24, 2009 -- Women who drink as little as one alcoholic beverage a day -- be it
beer, wine, or hard liquor -- have an increased cancer risk, a study shows.
Researchers followed more than 1.2 million middle-aged women for an average
of seven years. The women were participants in the ongoing Million Women Study
in the U.K.
Those who drank alcohol consumed on average one drink a day. These women had
an increased cancer risk with increasing alcohol intake, especially for cancers
of the breast, liver, rectum, mouth, throat, and esophagus.
Based on their findings, the researchers estimated that alcohol could be to
blame for 13% of these cancers in women.
The link between alcohol and breast cancer has been
extensively researched and reported on, but the study is among the first to
link low-to-moderate alcohol consumption to other cancers in women.
"There were no minimum levels of alcohol consumption that could be
considered to be without risk," cancer epidemiologist and study researcher
Naomi Allen, DPhil, of the University of Oxford, tells WebMD.
Alcohol and Breast Cancer
Most of the excess cases were breast cancers. Allen and colleagues concluded
that as many as 11% of breast cancers can be attributed to alcohol
Last year, about 250,000 women were diagnosed with invasive and non-invasive
breast cancers in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. The
latest research suggests that 27,000 of these cancers were alcohol related.
The study also shows that:
- Women who drank only wine had the same risk for developing cancer as those
who drank beer, spirits, or a combination of alcoholic beverages.
- Less than 2% of the women in the study regularly consumed more than three
drinks a day, but each additional drink increased risk.
- Women who smoked and drank alcohol had an increased risk of oral, throat,
and esophageal cancer that was greater than the risk associated with smoking alone.
Allen says the findings cannot be extrapolated to men, because they were not
included in the study. Most of the research on alcohol and cancer in men has
been limited to heavy drinkers, but Allen says it is likely that
low-to-moderate alcohol consumption increases cancer risk in men as well as
'No Safe Level of Alcohol'
In an editorial accompanying the study, cardiologist Michael S. Lauer, MD,
and cardiovascular epidemiologist Paul Sorlie, PhD, of the National Heart, Lung
and Blood Institute noted that the study's enormous size and strong design will
strongly influence the debate about alcohol and health.
"From the standpoint of cancer risk, the message of this report could
not be clearer," they wrote. "There is no level of alcohol consumption
that can be considered safe."
Numerous studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption can lower the
risk of heart disease, but Lauer tells
WebMD that these studies are not conclusive.
"Even if there are modest beneficial cardiovascular effects, we still
don't have a clear picture of the overall risks and benefits of low-to-moderate
alcohol consumption," he says. And because heart disease kills mostly
elderly women, and because more middle-aged women die from cancer, the findings
seem to suggest that the risks of drinking outweigh the benefits in this age
group, he says.
"It might be reasonable to suspect that many women in the lay public who
are asking physicians about any possible safe effects of alcohol are
middle-aged: for this large group, the only reasonable recommendation we can
make is that there is no clear evidence that alcohol has medical benefits,"
Lauer and Sorlie wrote.