The American Cancer Society recently updated its guidelines for preventing cancer. Among the recommendations: Don’t drink alcohol.
While no alcohol is best for cancer prevention, women who choose to drink anyway should have no more than one drink a day, and men no more than two drinks a day.
We spoke with Therese Bevers, M.D., medical director of MD Anderson’sCancer Prevention Center, about the new alcohol guidelines and what they mean.
What is your reaction to these updated alcohol guidelines?
These updated guidelines bring the American Cancer Society’s recommendations more in line with what we know about alcohol and cancer risk. They are also consistent with what’s recommended by other organizations, including MD Anderson and the American Institute for Cancer Research.
How does drinking alcohol increase a person’s cancer risk?
There are many ways in which alcohol can increase a person’s risk of cancer:
The ethanol in alcoholic drinks breaks down to acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen. This compound damages DNA and stops our cells from repairing the damage. This can allow cancerous cells to grow.
Alcohol can affect levels of hormones like estrogen. These hormones act as messengers that tell our cells to grow and divide. The more cells divide, the more chances there are for something to go wrong and for cancer to develop.
Alcohol makes the body less able to break down and absorb several important nutrients such as vitamins A, C, D, E, and folate. These nutrients help protect the body against cancer.
Alcohol provides empty calories. Consuming extra calories can lead to weight gain, which can increase a person’s cancer risk.
If alcohol is a carcinogen, why do you give serving recommendations?
We recognize that most Americans are not going to abstain from drinking alcohol completely. So, if they are going to drink, at least we can offer some guidance on what moderate drinking looks like.
The important thing to remember is that every time you drink, you increase your cancer risk. As with cigarettes and processed meat, there is no safe amount of alcohol.
What should patients in active cancer treatment know about alcohol and cancer?
Cancer patients should talk to their doctor about the use of alcohol.
How does drinking alcohol affect a person’s chances of cancer recurrence?
Studies show that alcohol is a risk factor for certain cancers. However, the link between alcohol and cancer recurrence is not known, especially for those who have completed cancer treatment. However, it’s best to avoid drinking after a cancer diagnosis, since it increases cancer risk.
If someone quits drinking, how does past consumption of alcohol impact their cancer risk?
Research has shown that when you stop drinking, the risk for alcohol-related cancers declines over time. It may take many years to fully eliminate that risk; however, quitting is a very important step to improving your health and decreasing your cancer risk.
What is the best thing to drink if I’m going to have alcohol?
When it comes to managing your cancer risk, there is no alcoholic drink that is better than the other. All of them — including beer, wine and liquor — have ethanol, which is linked to increased cancer risk.
To limit alcohol’s impact on your waistline, choose something that is lower in calories. For example, stay away from cocktails that have sugary mixers.
If you drink red wine in the hopes that you are protecting your heart health, I would look for other ways to do that. Some studies suggest that there are compounds in red wine that offer cardiovascular benefits. But there are many ways to keep your heart healthy. The potential benefits of drinking wine do not outweigh the cancer risk.