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The Sobering Facts About Alcohol and Cancer

There is an urgent need to raise global awareness about the direct link between alcohol consumption and cancer risk.

That message was delivered by Isabelle Soerjomataram, PhD, with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Lyon, France, at a session devoted to alcohol and cancer at the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) Annual Meeting 2023.

“Global awareness about the link between alcohol and cancer continues to be very low,” Soerjomataram told the audience. “Health professionals — oncologists, nurses, medical doctors, GPs — have an important role in increasing awareness and bringing this knowledge to people, which may lead to reduced consumption.”

Session chair Gilberto Morgan, MD, medical oncologist, Skåne University Hospital, Lund, Sweden, agreed.

Morgan noted that healthcare professionals tend to downplay their influence over patients’ drinking habits and often don’t address these behaviors.

But that needs to change.

“We have absolutely no problem asking patients if they take supplements or vitamins or if they’re eating [healthy],” Morgan said. “So, what is the difference? Why not recommend that they cut down their alcohol intake and leave it up to everybody’s personal choice to do it or not?”

In the session, Soerjomataram highlighted the global statistics on alcohol use. IARC data show, for instance, that nearly half (46%) of the world’s population consumes alcohol, with rates higher in men (54%) than women (38%).

How much are people drinking?

Globally, on average, the amount comes to about six liters of pure ethanol per year per drinker, or about one wine bottle per week. However, consumption patterns vary widely by country. In France, people consume about 12 liters per year or about two wine bottles per week.

Soerjomataram stressed the link between alcohol consumption and cancer.

According to IARC data, heavy drinking — defined as more than 60 g/day or about six daily drinks — accounts for 47% of the alcohol-attributable cancers. Risky drinking — between 20 and 60 g/day — accounts for 29%, she explained, while moderate drinking — less than 20 g/day or about two daily drinks — accounts for roughly 14% of cases of alcohol-attributable cancers.

Globally, alcohol intake accounted for 4% of all cancers diagnosed in 2020, according to a 2021 analysis by IARC.

In the UK alone, “alcohol drinking caused nearly 17,000 cases of cancer in 2020,” Soerjomataram said, and breast cancer made up almost one in four of those new cases.

In addition to breast cancer, six other cancer types — oral cavity, pharyngeal, laryngeal, esophageal, colorectal, and liver cancer — can be attributed to alcohol consumption, and emerging evidence suggests stomach and pancreatic cancer may be as well.

The good news, said Soerjomataram, is that long-term trends show declines in alcohol drinking in many countries, including the high wine-producing countries of France and Italy, where large reductions in consumption have been noted since the peak of intake in the 1920s.

“If it’s possible in these countries, I can imagine it’s possible elsewhere,” said Soerjomataram. 

Soerjomataram and Morgan report no relevant financial relationships.

European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) Congress 2023. Presented October 23, 2023.

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  • Posted on November 17, 2023