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Alcohol and cancer: Understanding your risk

Studies have shown moderate alcohol consumption can reduce a person's risk of developing certain diseases, including diabetes and coronary artery disease. Though the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption might be widely known, the link between cancer and alcohol consumption does not garner as much attention.

While many people consume alcohol without ever getting cancer, that does not mean their risk isn't increasing. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking too much alcohol weakens the immune system, making the body a much easier target for disease, including cancer. And these effects are immediate. Drinking a lot on just a single occasion makes it hard for the body to fight infection for up to 24 hours after consumption.

The NIAAA also reports that drinking too much alcohol increases a person's risk of developing certain cancers, including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast. In addition, the American Cancer Society notes that alcohol consumption may also increase a person's risk of developing cancer of the pancreas. That's because alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances which can eventually lead to pancreatitis, an inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that can prevent proper digestion.

The reasons alcohol raises the risk of developing cancer can vary depending on the type of cancer. For example, heavy alcohol use can damage the liver, potentially causing inflammation that can increase the risk of developing liver cancer. In addition, a woman who consumes just a few drinks per week might be unknowingly increasing her risk of developing breast cancer, as alcohol can affect estrogen levels in the body.

When examining the link between alcohol consumption and cancer, it's important to note that the type of drink consumed is not the most important factor to consider. That's because ethanol is the type of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks, and the standard size drinks -- 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor -- contain the same amount of ethanol. So more so than the type of drink that's consumed, it's the amount of the drink consumed over time that can increase a person's risk of developing cancer.

Men and women who want to cut down on their alcohol consumption, and likely reduce their risk of developing cancer, can consider the following tips, courtesy of the Canadian Cancer Society.

•Avoid salty snacks while consuming alcohol. While those peanuts or pretzels might make a perfect complement to a glass of beer, their salt content will only make you more thirsty, increasing the chance that you will drink more than is healthy.

•Do more than just drink when going out. If you're going out for a night on the town, be sure drinking isn't the focal point of the night. Do something other than drink, whether it's dancing, playing pool or throwing darts, to slow down your drinking. The more preoccupied you are with another activity, the less likely you are to overconsume.

•Don't relieve stress with a drink. Alcohol should not be used as a means to relieve stress, as alcohol's physical effects on your body will only exacerbate the effects of stress. Relieve stress in more positive ways, whether through exercise or another activity that has a calming effect.

•Keep track of your drinking habits. Monitoring your drinking habits can give you a better picture of how much alcohol you consume on a regular basis. Knowing how much you're consuming and the potentially dangerous side effects of overconsumption can be a motivating factor to cut back.

More information on alcohol and its link to cancer is available at

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