A Link Between Alcohol and Cancer? It’s Not Nearly as Scary as It Seems

The headline had some of my friends in a panic.

Citing evidence, the American Society of Clinical Oncology warnedthat even light drinking could increase the risk of cancer.

Once again, we’ve been told that something we eat or drink is going to kill us. Once again, we’re provided an opportunity: A more nuanced discussion of risk — and how we communicate it — can leave us much happier, and perhaps healthier.

Let’s begin with the fact that it’s easy to use studies to talk about cancer. Nothing illustrates this better than the classic 2013 study that examined research on 40 common ingredients selected from an ordinary cookbook. Researchers found 264 different studies touching on at least one of those ingredients. Their conclusion? Depending where you look, you can find evidence that says that nearly everything we eat is both associated with higher rates of cancer and lower rates of cancer.

The gist of the oncology society announcement is that there is a reasonable amount of evidence finding an association between some cancers (specifically oropharyngeal and larynx cancer, esophageal cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, breast cancer and colon cancer) and alcohol. It acknowledges that the greatest risks are with those who drink heavily, but it cautions that even modest drinking may increase the risk of cancer. In the United States, the announcement also notes, 3.5 percent of cancer deaths are attributable to alcohol.

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