We’re familiar with the obvious effects of alcohol abuse, including motor impairment and depression. But what about the link between alcohol and oral cancer? What’s the evidence of such a link? And can’t tobacco do the same thing?
We’re going to look at studies that demonstrate the link between alcohol and oral cancer. We’ll also look at possible reasons why alcohol has this effect. If you fear having oral cancer due to drinking alcohol, please see your doctor to confirm it. Also, know that the best way to prevent such cancer is to stop drinking. There are rehab facilities near you that can teach people how to overcome alcohol addiction. Please get in touch with us at (385) 327-7418 to learn about rehab centers like this in your area.
Read on to learn more about the links between alcohol and oral cancer, and be sure to reach out to our experts with any concerns.
The Dangerous Link Between Drinking and Oral Cancer
Does alcohol cause cancer? According to headandneck.org, “drinking alcohol is a causal risk factor for cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus. In fact, in the U.S., about 27% of all cancers of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx, and about 34% of all esophageal cancers, can be attributed to alcohol use.”
An important study was released a few years ago. The study looked at human carcinogenic evidence related to oral and pharyngeal (pharynx) cancer risk based on studies published from 1988 to 2009. This study was trying to verify earlier studies that indicated a relationship between alcohol abuse and certain forms of cancer. The evidence has consistently supported that alcohol consumption is strongly associated with a higher risk for oral and pharyngeal cancer. The relative risks increase when consuming more than 4 drinks/day (when adjusted for smoking and other potential confounders).
The findings were quite conclusive regarding cancers of the mouth. “Overall, the increased risk of oral cancer associated with alcohol consumption is substantial, even after controlling for smoking.” The strength of the association was consistent across different geographic regions and populations.
The study also pointed to increased pharyngeal cancer risk and the link between alcohol and oral cancer risk. The conclusion states it clearly. “The independent effect of alcohol consumption on the risk of oral and pharyngeal cancer occurs across different geographic regions and populations in the world, especially among over 20 studies of non-smokers.” And predictably enough, the more alcohol a person drinks, the higher the risk.
Smoking Makes It Worse
The message is even grimmer for those who both drink and smoke. According to oralcancerfoundation.org, scientists believe that alcohol and tobacco “synergistically interact, increasing each other’s harmful effects.” This is one answer to the question “how does alcohol cause cancer”: it dehydrates tissue in the mouth, making it more prone to absorb carcinogens from tobacco.
Also, the nutritional deficiencies associated with heavy drinking can lower the body’s ability to use antioxidants to prevent cancers. In other words, drinking alcohol may make it easier for tobacco to have harmful effects on the mouth area.
Some studies have even indicated that cirrhosis of the liver due to alcohol intake may be associated with an increased risk for oral cancer. “Patients with cirrhosis often develop a smooth, glossy appearance to the oral mucosae (tissues of the throat and mouth) that may be caused by liver-induced cellular changes.”
Cancer.gov echoes these findings. “Epidemiologic research shows that people who use both alcohol and tobacco have much greater risks of developing cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx (throat), larynx, and esophagus than people who use either alcohol or tobacco alone.”
It’s difficult to accurately study a relationship between drinking and smoking and cancer since so many patients who drink already smoke. A reliable study would need control groups consisting of persons with cancer who only drink or only smoke. However, eliminating the use of oral tobacco and reducing or eliminating your alcohol intake will immediately reduce your risk of developing oral cancer. Within 10 years of quitting, the risk for oral cancer should be as low as any other non-drinker/non-smoker.
Other Cancers Linked to Drinking Alcohol
When discussing the relationship between alcohol and cancer, it turns out that the mouth is far from the only area affected. According to cancer.gov, “evidence indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks—particularly the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time—the higher his or her risk of developing alcohol-associated cancer.”
Apparently, even light drinkers (those who have no more than one drink per day) and occasional binge drinkers will have a slightly higher risk for some cancers. In 2009, an estimated 3.5% of cancer deaths in the United States (about 19,500 deaths) were alcohol-related. The cancers associated with alcohol use included cancers of the mouth and throat, larynx, esophagus, colon and rectum, liver, and breasts.
Why can drinking alcohol lead to cancer? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), when you drink alcohol, your body breaks it down into a chemical called acetaldehyde. That chemical damages your DNA and prevents your body from repairing the damage. DNA controls a cell’s normal growth and function, so when DNA is damaged, a cell can begin growing out of control and create a cancerous tumor.
Some think that drinking red wine will reduce the risk of developing cancer, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. According to Cancer.gov, the plant compound resveratrol, found in grapes used to make red wine, has been investigated for possible health benefits, including cancer prevention. “However, researchers have found no association between moderate consumption of red wine and the risk of developing prostate cancer or colorectal cancer.”
Drinking Alcohol is Damaging to DNA
The CDC site also notes that drinking can generate reactive oxygen species (chemically reactive molecules that contain oxygen), which can damage DNA, proteins, and lipids (fats) in the body through a process called oxidation.
Drinking can also hinder the body’s ability to break down and absorb various nutrients, including vitamin A, nutrients in the vitamin B complex, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, and carotenoids.
Drinking can also increase blood levels of estrogen, a sex hormone linked to the risk of breast cancer.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the American Institute for Cancer Research recommend complete abstinence as the surest way to prevent cancer. “For those that do drink, experts recommend sticking to moderate levels – meaning 1 drink a day or less for women, and 2 drinks a day or less for men.”
Also, it’s important to remember that those daily limits are not transferable. “Saving up” drinks for the weekend can actually be dangerous. Binge drinking (4 or more drinks in one sitting for a woman, 5 or more for a man) and heavy drinking (8 or more drinks per week for women, 15 or more drinks per week for men) “can lead to a range of health and social problems, including cancer risk.” The site also notes that the risk of oral cancer is up to 35 times higher for those who both smoke and drink than for those who do neither.
Does Quitting Alcohol Stop or Reverse the Cancer?
Does the risk of cancer go down if an alcoholic stops drinking alcohol? Some cancer studies have found that stopping alcohol consumption is not associated with immediate reductions in cancer risk.
Even for someone who quit drinking 16 years ago, the chance of developing mouth or throat cancer remains high compared to people who never drank at all.
One study estimated that it would take more than 35 years for the higher risks to decrease to the level of never drinkers.
The bottom line is “the less alcohol, the better.” The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that you drink alcohol at all in moderation—no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men.
There is no reason to start if you don’t drink, regardless of what you might read about potential health benefits. The guidelines also recommend that you don’t drink if you are under the legal age, pregnant, or have health problems that could be made worse by drinking. And if you’re on prescription medication of any kind, avoiding alcohol is the safest option for this situation, too, although it’s always worth getting your doctor’s opinion.
While the exact mechanisms remain unclear, it’s very clear that there’s a link between drinking alcohol and oral cancer, or cancers of the mouth.
This is on top of all the other complications associated with alcohol abuse, including drunk driving and physical illness.
Time to Get Help
The tragedy is that many alcoholics don’t want to be that way. Addiction is a complicated disease that requires help from professionals to overcome. Most alcoholics who try to quit by themselves won’t succeed because they don’t have the resources or the professional help they need.
Rehab facilities can provide the medicine, the resources, and the expert help required for someone to overcome an addiction. If you or a loved one needs help overcoming an addiction, please contact us at (385) 327-7418 to learn about rehab facilities near you. With the right help, you can gain control of your addiction and get back in control of your life.