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Even moderate drinking can boost risk of cancer

Published: Saturday, Feb. 23 2013 6:35 p.m. MST

Wine with a meal may increase the risk of getting cancer.

Daniella Segura via Flickr

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For years, the proverbial glass of red wine with dinner has been associated with cardiovascular benefits.

However, a new paper in the April 2013 issue of American Journal of Public Health overshadows this notion by connecting even moderate drinking with an increased risk of death from cancer.

The study, conducted by researchers from various public health institutions, found that alcohol causes approximately 20,000 cancer deaths a year in the U.S., making it one of the leading preventable causes of cancer.

“In the broader context of all the issues and all the problems that alcohol is related to, alcohol causes 10 times as many deaths as it prevents,” study director Dr. David Nelson told Healthday, a health news website.

Nelson is the director of the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

“As expected, people who are higher alcohol users were at higher risk, but there was really no safe level of alcohol use,” he said.

The study said that average daily consumption of 1.5 drinks or less accounted for 30 percent of all alcohol-attributable cancer deaths.

Boston Magazine quoted the report, saying, "Researchers also found that each alcohol-related cancer death accounted for an average of 18 years of potential life lost."

Writing about the findings for MyHealthDailyNews, a health news website, Cari Nierenberg said, “In other words, a woman who dies from alcohol-related breast cancer at age 60 likely would have lived until age 78 had cancer not cut her life short.

About 15 percent of breast cancer deaths in 2009 were linked to alcohol.

Dr. Timothy Naimi, associate professor at Boston University School of Medicine, said the study was the closest look at alcohol-related cancer deaths in 30 years.

"The relationship between alcohol and cancer is strong, but is not widely appreciated by the public and remains underemphasized even by physicians," said Naimi, who helped design and direct the study.

"Alcohol is a big preventable cancer risk factor that has been hiding in plain sight.”

The Healthday article also said that according to the American Cancer Society, "it's not entirely clear how alcohol (which is a carcinogen) might raise cancer risk. Alcohol might act as a chemical irritant to sensitive cells, impeding their DNA repair, or damage cells in other ways.

"It might also act as a 'solvent' for other carcinogens, such as those found in tobacco smoke, helping those chemicals enter into cells more easily. Or alcohol might affect levels of key hormones such as estrogen, upping odds for breast cancer."

"Nobody is recommending that if you do not drink to start drinking for any reason," Susan Gapstur, vice president of epidemiology at the American Cancer Society, told Healthday. "If you do drink, limit your consumption."

email: dward@deseretnews.com.

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