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Alcohol and Cancer

Early this century, cancer researchers noted that people who had alcohol problems had a high incidence of cancers of the stomach and esophagus. In 1982, a landmark report issued by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded that there was enough convincing scientific evidence to link heavy alcohol consumption directly to cancers of the tongue/ mouth and esophagus and indirectly to cancer of the liver (1).

Alcohol consumption also seems to be connected to several other cancer sites—pharynx, larynx, stomach, pancreas, lungs and kidney. (2), (3)

It is not completely clear whether alcohol "causes" cancer (that is whether the alcohol directly leads to the problem), or whether it acts as an intermediary.

Alcohol may suppress a person's  immune responses (4). Or it may act as a tumour promoter (5). Or, if the person is drinking and not eating properly, he or she probably isn’t taking in adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables (6). And a lack of fruits and vegetables is also associated with cancer in the same sites.

What we do know is that the risk for cancer in these sites is often dose-related. The more the person drinks, the greater the chance of getting cancer. (7)

There is also some indication that heavy alcohol consumption may speed cancer growth. (8)


The Bottom Line

American Institute For Cancer Research notes:

"Although alcohol has been shown to be a human carcinogen, current research suggests that people who eat healthy diets and do not smoke will probably not increase their cancer risk from moderate alcohol consumption.

"Moderate" is defined as a maximum of one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. These are the same levels that research has shown to be protective against coronary heart disease.




Cancer and Treatment for Alcohol-related Problems


Helping a senior who has cancer and who also has an alcohol problem creates a number of challenges.
1.   Alcohol consumption can seriously interfere with a senior getting proper nutrition to fight the cancer effectively. 
2.  Some people use alcohol as their coping strategy upon learning they have cancer.
3.  In other instances, a person who has previously stopped drinking, may relapse and may begin drinking again. A diagnosis of cancer often leads the person to thinking, "Why stop now?" I’m going to die anyhow." However cancer is not necessarily a death sentence. The prognosis for many kinds of cancer is good, and far more promising than a decade ago. 

Also, even if death is impending, a senior has an opportunity to make positive changes in the last few months. "The why stop now" approach becomes "How do I want to be remembered?" People often remember the last months of a senior’s life (the good and the bad) than they do all the years before.

4. As noted in the section on Alcohol and Caregiving, cancer affects not only the individual, but those who give physical and emotional care to them. Without proper supports, the stresses of caring and giving care can feel insurmountable to some, and the caregiver turns to alcohol as their coping strategy.
5. At present, cancer support groups have tended to overlook the ongoing role of alcohol as a coping strategy for some people who have cancer, as well as the fact it may be a coping strategy for some people who care for them and about them. But, hopefully, that lack of recognition is changing.





  1. American Institute For Cancer Research Newsletter 52, Summer 1996, "Analyzing Alcohol And Cancer Risk".
  2. Blot, W. J. (April 1, 1992) "Alcohol and Cancer".  Cancer Research. 52 (7 Suppl.) 2119s-2123s.
  3. Hinds, M.W., Kolonel, L.N., Lee, J., et al. (June, 1980) "Associations between cancer incidence and alcohol/ cigarette consumption among five ethnic groups in Hawaii" British Journal of Cancer 41 (6) 929-40.
  4. Glassman, A.B., Bennett, C.E. & Randall, C.L. (June, 1985) "Effects of ethyl alcohol on human peripheral lymphocytes" Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine 109 (6) 540-2.
  5. Mufti, S.I., Darban, H.R. & Watson, R.R. (1989) "Alcohol, cancer and immuno-modulation" Critical Reviews in Oncology- Hematology Vol.9 (3) 243-61.
  6. Mettlin, C. (Oct. 1986) "Dietary factors for cancer in specific sites" Surgical Clinics of North America 66 (5), 917-29.
  7. Turner, C. & Anderson, P. (Nov. 1990)"Is alcohol a carcinogenic risk?" British Journal of Addiction Vol. 85 (11), 1409-15.
  8. From a study at Washington State University looking at melanoma in rats. (See Wednesday, May 15, 2002,  BBC Online :  http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/health/newsid_1990000/1990061.stm)  .




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