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Alcohol Consumption Linked to Increased Cancer Risk in Women

A newly released study shows that low to moderate alcohol consumption leads to an increased risk of cancer among women.

The study, conducted by University of Oxford scientists, found that women who consume as little as one alcoholic drink a day significantly increase their chance of developing certain types of cancer. According to researchers, the risk increases for every additional drink consumed.

The study examined more than a million middle-aged women living in the United Kingdom who drank on average one alcoholic beverage per day. Researchers found that during a seven-year period, nearly 69,000 of those women were diagnosed with cancer.

Dr. Jodie Moffat from Cancer Research UK, which funded the study, says the type of alcohol consumed was not a major factor.

"An interesting part of this study is that they did set out to explore whether the risk varied depending on the type of alcohol that was drunk," said Dr. Moffat. "So whether it was wine or whether it was a mix of other types of alcohol - including beer, etc. - and found that what was important was the amount of alcohol that was consumed and not the type that was consumed."

Researchers say that about 13 percent of breast, liver, colon, oral and throat cancers can be linked to alcohol use.

The statistics are staggering. A group of 1,000 women averaging one drink each per day would develop 15 extra cases of cancer by age 75. Two drinks per day would double that rate. Three drinks per day would lead to 45 more cases of cancer than normal - the majority of which would be breast cancer.

Dr. Robert Brewer of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the findings are consistent with those of other studies that have shown that when it comes to cancer, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

"As a general statement, drinking less is certainly better than drinking more," said Dr. Brewer. "But even drinking at lower levels such those recommended by the dietary guidelines does carry some risks. It's generally a low risk, but it is something that people need to be aware of when they are making decisions about their own drinking behavior."

But the Oxford study also found that alcohol consumption was associated with a lower risk of developing some types of cancer - including thyroid, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and renal cell carcinoma. But researchers says the protective effect of alcohol use warrants further investigation.

Several studies have been published touting the potential cardiovascular benefits of drinking red wine. But Dr. Robert Brewer says those benefits may be due to other factors such as physical activity or lower body fat.

"I think, frankly, the jury is really still out on whether or not moderate alcohol consumption is beneficial," he said. "I think that it's also very possible - particularly with respect to heart disease - it certainly is very possible that the protective effects that we tend to associate with alcohol may be due to other things besides alcohol consumption. There have been a number of studies, including some work we've done, that suggest that people who drink at moderate levels tend to be very different from people who don't drink at all and often tend to have much lower prevalence of a variety of other risk factors."

The Oxford study found that once in your body, alcohol converts into a chemical that can cause cancer by damaging DNA. The study also says that people who drink and smoke are at increased risk because alcohol can make it easier for tissues in the mouth to absorb cancer causing chemicals in tobacco. The study's findings will be published in the March 4 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.