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Alcohol is a group 1 carcinogen, the highest classification of a substance known to cause cancer in humans – and the same classification as asbestos, formaldehyde, and tobacco smoke. Epidemiological data indicate that nearly three-quarters of a million new cancer cases worldwide are directly attributable to alcohol consumption00279-5/fulltext). Findings from a 2015 meta-analysis suggest that alcohol consumption increases the risk of several types of cancer.

Scientists do not fully understand how alcohol drives cancer, but evidence points to a variety of mechanisms related to how the body metabolizes ethanol, the form of alcohol present in alcoholic beverages. Evidence indicates that the processes and products associated with ethanol metabolism exert genotoxic effects; promote oxidative stress; alter vitamin metabolism (especially folate and vitamin A-related compounds); increase estrogen levels; and drive inflammation.

The investigators reviewed data from 572 studies involving more than 480,000 cancer cases. They calculated site-specific cancer risk for light, moderate, and heavy drinkers versus non-drinkers.

They found that cancer risk increased for every category of drinking in a dose-dependent manner. As such, risk was greatest for heavy drinkers (more than four standard drinks per day). For example, compared to non-drinkers, the risk that heavy drinkers would develop cancer oral and pharyngeal cancer was 5.13 times higher; esophageal cancer, 4.95 times higher; laryngeal cancer, 2.65 times higher; breast cancer, 1.61 times higher; and colorectal cancer, 1.44 times higher. Heavy drinkers were also more likely to develop cancers of the stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and lung.

These findings suggest that alcohol consumption markedly increases cancer risk in a dose-dependent manner. Alcohol consumption is just one of many lifestyle behaviors that influence cancer risk. Learn how modifying lifestyle behaviors can reduce the risk of breast cancer, for example, as well as other chronic diseases, in this clip featuring Dr. Ruth Patterson.

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