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Canadians unaware
Alcohol use linked to cancer

The link between smoking and cancer is well known. Less well known – but equally significant – is the link between alcohol and cancer.

“Alcohol is clearly a risk factor for some types of cancer,” says Dr. Norman Giesbrecht, a Senior Scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. In particular, he noted, the link is strongest for cancers of the upper digestive tract including the throat and esophagus; colorectal cancer; and breast cancer.

The research shows that heavy drinking puts individuals at increased risk of developing cancer, but even drinking a small amount increases one’s risk.

Most Canadians are surprised to learn that alcohol, even at low levels, can cause cancer. A survey conducted in 2008 found that only 33% of Canadians realized drinking alcohol was linked to an increased risk of cancer.

Many people are also surprised to learn alcohol is a risk factor for cancer because they have heard that alcohol may have some protective effects for some types of heart disease. “But with regard to cancer and alcohol, that is not the case,” says Dr. Giesbrecht.

The studies on alcohol and cancer, which typically compare lifetime abstainers toBEER individuals who drink, found it didn’t matter what type of alcohol a person was drinking: wine, beer, and spirits are all linked to cancer. “It appears that once the alcohol is in your system, there is no significant difference in terms of the impact,” says Dr. Giesbrecht.

The researchers did discover, however, that people who drink spirits without food may be at increased risk for cancer of the upper throat. Smoking and alcohol has also been found to be a dangerous combination. “The risk for cancer is higher if a person is both a heavy smoker and a drinker,” says Dr. Giesbrecht.

According to the World Cancer Research Fund there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. Howeverr, the WCRF recommends that if alcohol is consumed men should have no more than two drinks a day and a woman should have no more than one drink a day.

A report prepared by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer found that the percentage of Canadians exceeding the WCRF’s low-risk drinking guidelines has been steadily rising. In 2000-01, 7.6% of Canadians reported exceeding those guidelines. By 2005, the last year for which figures are available, 9.2% reported exceeding the guidelines.

The report, Alcohol Use and Cancer in Canada, notes a rising trend in all age groups but younger Canadians, aged 18 to 34, have the highest rates. Individuals in the highest income category are also 2.5 times more likely to exceed the guidelines than those in the lowest income category.

Increasing awareness about the link between alcohol and cancer is a critical first step to reducing risk, he notes. “If young men and women, in particular, were aware of the potential health problems, they might make different choices. They don’t see the harm in having too much to drink every weekend, but there may well be a harm,” says Dr. Giesbrecht.

Dr. Giesbrecht recommends that individuals talk with their doctor or health provider about this issue. He also stresses that as a society we need to look at alcohol differently. “This is not about being a killjoy. This is an important public health issue.”


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