Most of us know about the cancer-risk of cigarettes but are utterly unaware of the cancer-risk or alcohol. Our liver converts all alcohol we drink, whether beer, wine or hard liquor, to acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a chemical that is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing chemical) in humans. There is no controversy about this among scientists.
How much does alcohol contribute to the incidence of cancer in our society? Drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancers of mouth, throat, larynx (voice box), esophagus (food pipe), colon, rectum, liver, and breast.
Narrowing our focus to only breast cancer — what this blog is about — reveals that every year about 15% of breast cancer cases and deaths are attributed to alcohol. That’s about 35,000 new cases of breast cancer and about 6,000 deaths. As a comparison, between 5-10% of breast cancer cases are due to BRCA mutations.
This is why this study — A comparison of gender-linked population cancer risks between alcohol and tobacco: how many cigarettes are there in a bottle of wine? — is a useful one. It quantifies a little-known risk in terms of a well-known risk.
The study concludes that one bottle of wine per week is associated with an increased absolute lifetime risk of alcohol-related cancers in women, driven by breast cancer, equivalent to the increased absolute cancer risk associated with ten cigarettes per week.
One bottle of wine per week is associated with an increased absolute lifetime risk of alcohol-related cancers in women, driven by breast cancer, equivalent to the increased absolute cancer risk associated with ten cigarettes per week.
That’s okay for wine, but what about other kinds of alcohol?
To better understand and communicate the risks of different kinds of alcohol, addiction specialists convert all alcohol to “standard drinks.” One standard drink is the amount of any drink containing 14 grams of pure alcohol. A bottle of wine has 5 standard drinks. Doing basic math, this study is telling us that in terms of cancer risk in women, driven primarily by breast cancer, 1 standard drink is the same as 2 cigarettes.
1 standard drink is the same as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.
So, how many cigarettes did you smoke this week?
Uzma Yunus, MD, the creator of this blog died on Jan 30, 2019. About three months before her death, she published her book Left Boob Gone Rogue: My Life With Breast Cancer, which as of this writing has 183 views on Amazon, each one of them a 5-star review. Her husband, Dheeraj Raina, MD, now maintains this blog.