Does Booze Cause Cancer? A New Study Illustrates The Complicated Answer

Senior Contributor
07.22.16
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It’s an eternal argument between people who enjoy a drink and people who are tiresome buzzkills: Does alcohol cause cancer? One side will gleefully point to one study, the other side to another. But a new study illustrates just how complicated the answer to this question really is.

Does Alcohol Cause Cancer?

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that no doctor is saying if you go out and get wasted every single night, you’ll be fine. Binge drinking and alcoholism are terrible for your health even before we utter a word about cancer. So the question really boils down to whether a beer or two on the regular is a net positive or a net negative for your health.

It’s also worth remembering that cancer is not a giant, monolithic disease. Cancer is a family of diseases, and something that discourages cancer in one part of the body might encourage cancer in another. In fact, that’s what this latest study from the University of New Zealand illustrates a little too well.

Alcohol Causes Cancer… Maybe

The study is an overview of alcohol and cancer and, on the surface, the news is not good. The data would seem to point to alcohol consumption as a risk for several different types of cancers, including the oropharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum and female breast. Some of this isn’t surprising, of course; we all know that your liver doesn’t like being soaked in alcohol. But the main problem the study acknowledges is two-fold.

The first is that we have absolutely no idea just why alcohol might be a risk factor, as the study itself admits:

The mechanisms by which alcohol causes cancer are not well understood, but are thought to depend upon the target organ. Pure ethanol does not act as a carcinogen in animal studies, and evidence that it causes mutations directly in humans is weak.

In other words, it’s not the alcohol itself that gets you, but something else. Elsewhere in the study, the author acknowledges that at least part of the link between alcohol consumption and cancer is tied to smoking, and it’s a consistent problem that we don’t quite understand what alcohol is doing here. Is it affecting body chemistry? Is there something in the alcohol? Is risk tied to consumption levels? It’s all a big question mark.

Finally, there’s another problem. The studies the research team surveyed also found cancers that didn’t care whether you were a teetotaler or slammed a bottle of bourbon a day, and even cancers that were negatively affected by alcohol:

It also seems reasonably clear that some cancers are not affected (adenocarcinoma of esophagus, gastric cardia, endometrium, bladder) or have a negative association with alcohol consumption (thyroid cancer, Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas and renal-cell cancer).

Should I Stop Drinking?

The only person who can tell you if you should stop drinking, or cut down on drinking, is your doctor. But it’s worth discussing that the approach to whether you should do anything because of the cancer risk is inherently flawed, for two reasons.

The first is that cancer doesn’t happen in any sort of a vacuum, or because you do one thing. There’s an enormous list of risk factors for each type of cancer, some of which you simply have no control over. One of the great myths of modern America is that if you eat this diet or exercise this much, you will be disease-free with flawless skin. It’s a comforting myth, and there can be good advice buried in it, but it’s still a myth.

The second is that worrying constantly over your health is a good way to stop enjoying your life, because taken individually, each of these risk factors is a tiny, tiny chance. For example, one of the cancers alcohol is supposed to encourage, esophageal cancer, has a low risk that drinking a beer or two will increase by… 4 percent to 7 percent. That is a tiny risk, and controlling for other health factors can wipe it out easily.

We should absolutely work out regularly and think carefully about what we put in our bodies. But one of the potential risk factors for cancer is sun exposure. Are you going to spend your entire life indoors? Or are you going to put on some sunscreen and roll some very tiny dice? Before worrying about the risk to your body, see if it’s a risk even worth worrying about.

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