Does Alcohol Cause Cancer in Women?

I know that drinking alcohol raises the risk of breast cancer. Is it also true that alcohol raises the risk of other types of cancer in women? 

– April 23, 2009

A new investigation from England suggests that drinking alcohol, even moderately, increases women’s risk of several types of cancer: breast, liver, rectum, oral cavity, pharynx, esophagus, and larynx. This was a huge analysis of alcohol use in almost 1.3 million middle-aged women in the UK. About three out of four women participating acknowledged that they drank alcohol. Overall, the average intake was about one drink per day.

The study ran for just over seven years, and during that period nearly 69,000 women were diagnosed with cancer. The risks increased with the number of drinks per day, no matter whether the women drank wine, beer or spirits. Women who were also smokers were at increased risk of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, esophagus and larynx.

On the positive side, the study found a decreased risk of thyroid cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and renal cell (kidney) cancer among the women who drank, but the researchers noted that more study will be needed before concluding that alcohol really does protect against these diseases.

The findings were published online on Feb. 24, 2009, in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. In an accompanying editorial, two researchers from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute wrote that while some studies suggest that moderate drinking may benefit heart health, "from the standpoint of cancer risk, the message of this report could not be clearer. There is no level of alcohol consumption that can be considered safe."

The American Cancer Society recommends that women who drink limit themselves to no more than one drink per day (the limit for men is two drinks). A drink means 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of spirits.

My feeling is that an occasional drink is unlikely to do you much harm. But based on this study’s results, drinking even moderate amounts of alcohol daily appears to increase women’s risk of several kinds of cancer. Fortunately, it is a risk factor you can control.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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