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As the pandemic rages on, you may be finding comfort in a glass (or three) of wine at the end of a stressful day. If that’s the case, you’re not alone. About 1 in 4 (23 percent) people said they drank more during the pandemic to deal with stress, according to a new poll from the American Psychological Association. And in a 2020 survey, 1 in 10 adults age 55 and older reported that their drinking increased since the pandemic began.
All this extra drinking could come with serious consequences — one of them being an increased risk of cancer. A new report published in The Lancet Oncology found that about 741,300 people worldwide developed cancer last year from alcohol use, a number that equates to 4.1 percent of all new cancers diagnosed in 2020. The paper focuses on drinkers who have alcohol-caused cancer, not unlike smokers who have tobacco-caused cancer.
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About three quarters of the alcohol-attributable cancers (76.7 percent) were in men, and most of the cancers were in the esophagus and liver. For women, breast cancer was also a common diagnosis.
1. Alcohol increases the risk of at least six cancers.
What’s the connection between drinking and cancer? Just like tobacco, alcohol is classified by the National Toxicology program as a cancer-causing substance, or carcinogen — right up there with asbestos, formaldehyde and ultraviolet radiation.
When you drink alcohol the body breaks it down into a chemical compound called acetaldehyde. This chemical can alter the DNA in your body as well as proteins and lipids, explains Farhad Islami, M.D., scientific director of cancer disparity research at the American Cancer Society and a coauthor of the Lancet Oncology report. And these changes can lead to tumor growth.
Alcohol can also adversely affect the regulation of hormones, and it may even promote cancer indirectly by acting as “a solvent for other carcinogenic agents,” Islami explains — meaning it may make it easier for the harmful chemicals in tobacco, for example, to batter the body. This is one possible explanation for why people who smoke and drink are much more likely to develop cancers in the mouth and throat than those who use either alcohol or tobacco alone.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drinking alcohol raises a person’s risk for six types of cancers: cancer in the mouth and throat; larynx; esophagus; colon and rectum; liver; and breast (in women). What’s more, evidence is mounting that alcohol consumption may be associated with increased risks of melanoma and of prostate and pancreatic cancers, the National Cancer Institute notes.