Alcohol often an overlooked cancer risk, Cancer Care report warns

Watch video above: Alcohol consumption increases the risk of some cancers, says new report. Crystal Goomansingh reports. 

TORONTO — Up to 3,000 cancer diagnoses in Ontario in 2012 were linked to alcohol consumption, a new report is warning.

It’s often overlooked by the more obvious risk factors — smoking, tanning or an unhealthy diet — but alcohol intake is also a major concern, according to Cancer Care Ontario.

“Alcohol drinking has been normalized in our society and so much so that we don’t think of it as a risk factor for chronic diseases, especially cancer,” Dr. Linda Rabeneck, CCO’s vice-president of prevention and cancer control, said.

“This is an opportunity to show that it’s a modifiable risk factor and there are people who are diagnosed with cancers that we can relate to alcohol,” she told Global News.

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In 2012, Cancer Care partnered with provincial public health officials to identify the “big four” risk factors tied to cancer and chronic disease: tobacco, excessive drinking, unhealthy eating and a sedentary lifestyle.  Earlier this year, it focused solely on smoking and cancer risk.

Now, in its second installment published Tuesday, the provincial cancer organization is singling out alcohol.

The report says that the World Health Organization has designated alcohol as a Class 1 carcinogen — that’s the strongest ranking. That means there is “sufficient evidence” that alcohol is linked to cancer in humans, Rabeneck said.

Yet Rabeneck said that surveys suggest that only one third of Canadians are aware of the connection.

“Physicians in practices should be making patients aware of this,” she said.

In Ontario, between 1,000 and 3,000 new cancer cases were attributable to alcohol consumption. The estimates make up about four per cent of diagnoses that year.

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Cancers linked to drinking include oral, esophageal, larynx, liver, colorectal and breast.

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Rabeneck said that there hasn’t been a clear explanation as to why alcohol would boost cancer risk.

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One possibility is that the components in alcohol once broken down may be toxic to your body’s tissue. It also increases estrogen, which can increase risk of breast cancer, Rabeneck hypothesized.

“There are some very plausible mechanisms that might explain why alcohol can raise a person’s risk of cancer,” she said.

About 21 per cent of adults drink in excess of recommended levels. It’s typically higher in rural regions compared to urban areas and among the most educated than the least educated, the report said.

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But because alcohol consumption is a modifiable risk factor, Canadians can do their part to keep cancer at bay.

If you are drinking alcohol, the consumption should be limited to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.

Rabeneck said the province should also limit hours of sale and distribution points to purchase alcohol.

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“There’s evidence that the more available alcohol is, the more harm there is. We’re not calling for a roll back, but we’re not calling for a broadening either,” she told Global News.

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Read the full Cancer Care Ontario report here.

Photo supplied/Cancer Care Ontario

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