Alcohol consumption can cause a wide range of health problems, from short-term issues to long-term disorders. One major concern with alcoholism is the increased risk of cancer. Understanding how excess alcohol impacts health can help you focus on recovery from addiction, and halting alcohol use could help you prevent some of the long-term consequences.
Alcoholic beverages include a wide range of drinks with different levels of alcohol content. Research shows that over 85% of people over age 18 have tried at least one alcoholic drink. One study indicates that over 400,000 cancer deaths per year are attributable to alcohol use, and worldwide statistics indicate over 740,000 new cancer cases per year are directly caused by alcohol consumption.
In 2015, 3,282 cancers were directly attributed to alcohol use in Canada alone. Reducing alcohol consumption overall can help reduce the occurrence of cancer.
What are the effects of alcohol?
Drinking to excess increases the risk of many health problems ranging from increased blood pressure to memory loss. In the short term, alcohol use can affect memory and coordination, making you more likely to incur an accidental injury while intoxicated. Drinking inhibits decision-making as well, so it can lead to risk-taking behaviors.
Some people who drink frequently may develop digestive tract problems, while others may have an increased risk of heart disease. Nutritional deficiencies may develop in people who drink excessively over long periods of time. Excessive drinking can impact the immune system, leading to more frequent illnesses and infections. Alcohol is also a carcinogen, so it can lead to the development of cancer.
Various factors affect how alcohol impacts each individual, so different people may experience widely different effects. Age, physical condition, gender, and any family history of addiction all affect how your body reacts to alcohol. The amount you drink in one session and how frequently you drink also alter the effects of alcohol on your body.
How does alcohol cause cancer?
The link between alcohol and cancer is well-established, though your risk is also affected by age and genetics. Alcohol is considered a carcinogenic substance, which means that it can directly cause damage that leads to cancer. Studies indicate that drinking too much causes specific changes that give you an increased risk of cancer.
While alcohol is the ultimate cause of cancer in the body, the mechanisms of cell destruction are associated with changes that occur after you have been drinking for a while. Once in the body, alcohol breaks down into a compound called acetaldehyde. This compound affects your DNA and hampers your body’s ability to repair DNA damage. Cancer forms when cells grow out of control as a result of this DNA damage. Once this type of cell damage begins, it is difficult to stop.
In addition to cellular DNA damage, alcohol also alters the chemical signals that modulate cell division. This hampers your body’s ability to prevent cells from multiplying out of control and increases cancer risk.
Cells in the mouth and throat are also directly damaged by alcohol. When this happens, the cancer-causing compounds in alcohol enter your body more easily, further increasing your cancer risk.
Excessive consumption of alcohol is a strong risk factor for cancer development. Having multiple drinks daily, either in one sitting or throughout the course of a day, is associated with a higher risk. The amount you drink matters. Findings indicate an increased risk when drinking regularly compared to modestly, which means that people who are addicted to alcohol tend to develop cancer at a higher rate. However, even low levels of drinking give you a higher risk than nondrinkers.
In some cases, doing other activities in conjunction with drinking also contributes to cancer risk. Smoking and drinking regularly increases the risk of mouth and throat cancer more than either activity alone.
What types of cancer can alcohol cause?
Alcohol affects systems throughout the body and is linked to various forms of cancer. Drinking damages systems as different as the brain, bowels, neck, and head. Two or more forms of cancer can develop in the same individual, so alcohol can cause second primary cancers in addition to any original cancer diagnosis. Some of the specific cancers directly caused by alcohol include:
- Breast cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Colon cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Liver cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Non-melanoma skin cancer
- Mouth and throat cancer
Halting your drinking habit can protect you from more than just cancer. Breaking free of the cycle of addiction could reduce your risk of liver damage, high blood pressure, memory loss, and dangerous accidents.
How can you prevent cancer risk from alcohol?
Reducing alcohol consumption is the easiest way to lower your risk of developing alcohol-associated cancers. Recurrent drinking binges have a strong effect on cancer risk, and the development of cancer is highly associated with the amount you drink. If you can avoid alcohol completely, you can dramatically alter your cancer risk.
Because alcohol abuse has such a strong connection to cancer, getting treatment for addiction is your first step to risk reduction.
What is alcohol abuse?
Alcohol abuse includes both misuse of alcohol and alcohol use disorder, sometimes known as alcoholism. These two types of alcohol abuse are related, but there are a few key differences.
Alcohol misuse includes any incident of heavy drinking. Binge drinking involves consuming enough alcohol to bring the blood alcohol level, or BAC, to 0.08 percent. In most cases, this corresponds to drinking four or more drinks in a row for women and five or more drinks for men. Some people may reach this threshold with fewer drinks.
In general, drinking more than one standard alcoholic beverage per day for women and two drinks per day for men is considered excessive drinking. Below that amount is considered moderate drinking.
Alcohol use disorder develops when you become addicted to alcohol. Someone with an alcohol addiction typically cannot stop drinking even when alcohol use affects home life, work, school, or interpersonal relationships. Both alcohol addiction and misuse have an impact on cancer risk and increase the risk of other short-term and long-term disorders. As an example, alcohol abuse can cause short-term memory issues as well as potentially lead to a higher risk of related long-term problems, such as dementia.
Signs of alcohol abuse that might warrant treatment include an inability to stop drinking even when you want to quit, spending money on alcohol that you need for regular living expenses, and fractured relationships with friends and family members.
Breaking free of alcohol addiction is more involved than halting casual alcohol use. Addiction causes specific changes in the brain that make stopping more difficult. If you have been drinking for a while, you may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms upon quitting. These can include dangerous tremors and seizures, so medically-monitored detoxification and withdrawal is recommended.
In many cases, alcohol abuse and addiction occur in conjunction with other substance abuse issues. Taking another drug while consuming alcohol increases your overall risk of health problems and makes recovery more complicated. Rehabilitation from multiple forms of substance abuse involves addressing each addiction separately while also focusing on the core reasons for them.
Even knowing the short-term and long-term risks of alcohol use, for many, is often not incentive enough to start an alcohol rehab program. In this case, family members and friends may choose to intervene in an attempt to convince the individual to get help. Addiction treatment is a necessary step to long-term recovery, and interventions are often life-saving.
It is difficult to know when to suggest a loved one enter treatment. A cancer diagnosis or recurring short-term health problem could be an incentive for entering detox and rehab. Whatever the reason, the support of family and friends can help make rehab a success.
Family and friends who plan to stage an intervention may encounter objections from the person with an alcohol use disorder. Proper planning can help overcome these objections and encourage the individual to get help.
Once a friend or family member has agreed to go to rehab, it is important to check in on a regular basis. Some people agree during an intervention, but don’t follow through afterward.
What can you expect from rehab?
Once you enter rehab, the first step is to go through medically-monitored detoxification. This process gets alcohol out of your system and gets you through the cravings and withdrawal symptoms common during the first stages of recovery. In some cases, detox involves taking medication to ease the symptoms and prevent deadly complications. Individuals diagnosed with cancer can go through medically-monitored detox while receiving treatment for cancer, so there is no need to halt one to get treatment for the other.
After medical detox, you can participate in both individual and group counseling to unlearn the patterns that led to addiction. A good rehab program offers therapy that investigates underlying reasons for addiction as well as counseling that teaches new ways of dealing with temptations and cravings.
Seek Professional Help Against Alcohol Addiction
Seeking professional help for alcohol addiction at a qualified treatment center is key to long-term recovery. Treatment centers are staffed with people who understand addiction and use a variety of techniques to tackle alcohol use disorders.
When choosing a rehab program, you have the option of inpatient or outpatient services. During an inpatient program, you live at the residential treatment facility full-time as you recover from addiction. Outpatient programs involve regular visits to a counseling office and let you complete rehab while living at home. Getting help through an inpatient program is generally more effective than an outpatient addiction program. When you’re ready to start your recovery journey, give us a call at 416-644-6345 or fill out our online contact form for more information.