Alcohol-Cancer Link Needs More Recognition

Most people surveyed knew about the link between alcohol and liver cancer, but far fewer knew that drinking could increase breast cancer risk, too.

Alcohol consumption can be linked to multiple types of cancer, and the American Cancer Society even recommended last year that individuals should stop drinking alcohol to decrease their cancer risk.

While thousands of cancer-related deaths can be tied to alcohol each year, a small study published in BMC Public Health found that there is a need for better public education on what kinds of cancers can be caused by drinking.

“In general, awareness of the risk of alcohol for certain types of cancer was low to moderate, reflecting a need to inform people not only that alcohol increases risk of cancer, but which types of cancer are most highly associated (with) alcohol,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers surveyed 1,759 individuals aged 21 or older at the 2019 Minnesota State Fair to understand their knowledge on the association of drinking with breast, liver and colorectal cancer. They looked at predictors of overall awareness of alcohol as a risk factor and prevalence of awareness of alcohol as a risk factor for each of the cancer types.

Most participants identified alcohol as a risk factor for cancer. However, the percentages varied by cancer type. Only 38% of people knew that breast cancer could be related to alcohol consumption, while 92% of people associated alcohol with liver cancer risk. Fifty-one percent of respondents were aware of the link between alcohol and laryngeal cancer, and 66% for colon/rectal and mouth/throat cancers.

About a third (32%) of the people surveyed said that they had a binge drinking session within the last 30 days. Binge drinking was associated with a higher probability of awareness of the correlation between alcohol and cancer overall, though a decreased awareness for mouth and throat cancers.

Twelve percent said that they were diagnosed with cancer at some point in their life, and 79% said that they knew a family member who has been diagnosed. A total of 66% of participants had a bachelor’s degree or higher, which the researchers said might be a factor in why such a high percentage reported knowing about the alcohol-cancer connection.

“In our sample, 87% of participants correctly identified alcohol consumption as a risk factor for cancer,” the researchers wrote. “These findings (are) inconsistent with prior studies, which have shown low awareness of this risk (under 50%).”

But prior studies also found that people most strongly associate alcohol with liver cancer risk.

“High awareness of the connection between alcohol and liver cancer may relate to awareness that alcohol causes liver problems, such as cirrhosis of the liver,” the researchers said. “In addition, people may surmise that alcohol can cause damage to the mouth and throat given their direct contact with alcohol when consuming. Awareness for breast cancer may also be low because of this and other factors.”

The researchers also noted that when alcohol companies advertise their drinks using breast cancer awareness imagery – something that is particularly prevalent in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month – it may “undermine efforts to raise awareness about the link between alcohol and breast cancer.”

While there was high awareness of alcohol’s impact on liver cancer risk, efforts must be made on the impact it can have on other cancers, according to the researchers. This can be done by way of organizations and nonprofits discouraging alcohol sponsorships, screening for alcohol use during health care visits, and implementing policies that can generate support for reduced alcohol consumption.

“(A)wareness for certain types of cancer was low to moderate, reflecting a need to inform people not only that alcohol increases risk of cancer, but which types of cancer alcohol increases the risk of,” the researchers said.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.