I enjoy the occasional glass of wine, and I wouldn't consider this level of drinking to be harmful to my health. But it appears I'm wrong; that seemingly innocent glass of pinot could be increasing my risk of cancer.
If you think I'm being dramatic, you're probably among the 70 percent of Americans who don't realize that alcohol consumption is a significant risk factor for cancer.
As a writer , I'm well aware that drinking can increase cancer risk. I'm also aware of the studies suggesting that moderate alcohol consumption has health benefits.
It's highly likely that I subconsciously use the latter as an excuse for my occasional glass of wine: "It's good for me, so why not?!"
But, as a new statement from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) — which was recently published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology — reveals, even light drinking could be putting my health at risk.
"Alcohol," write the study authors, "is causally associated with oropharyngeal and larynx cancer, esophageal cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, breast cancer, and colon cancer. Even modest use of alcohol may increase cancer risk, but the greatest risks are observed with heavy, long-term use."
ASCO's conclusions come from a review of more than 150 studies looking at the link between alcohol and cancer.
What is more, the authors report that around 5.5 percent of new cancer cases and around 5.8 percent of cancer deaths worldwide are directly related to alcohol intake.
'People don't associate drinking with cancer'
Only 38 percent of people in the United States are actively cutting back on their alcohol intake as a way of reducing cancer risk.
"People typically don't associate drinking beer, wine, and hard liquor with increasing their risk of developing cancer in their lifetimes," notes Dr. Bruce Johnson, president of ASCO. But maybe it's time that we did.
"[...] limiting alcohol intake is a means to prevent cancer," adds lead statement author Dr. Noelle K. LoConte, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
"The good news is that, just like people wear sunscreen to limit their risk of skin cancer, limiting alcohol intake is one more thing people can do to reduce their overall risk of developing cancer." Dr. Noelle K. LoConte
As part of the statement, ASCO put forward some recommendations that they believe could help to reduce alcohol intake in the U.S. These include increasing the price of alcohol, raising alcohol tax, introducing stricter regulations on the sale of alcohol to minors, and incorporating alcohol control strategies in cancer prevention plans.
The statement also highlights the importance of oncologists in informing us about the cancer risks associated with alcohol intake.
"Oncology providers," write the authors, "can serve as community advisors and leaders and can help raise the awareness of alcohol as a cancer risk behavior."
Yes, ASCO's recommendations could help to reduce alcohol consumption across America, but I am a firm believer that cutting back on the booze starts with oneself.
Cutting back to cut cancer risk
Earlier this year, I took part in Dry January, a public health campaign designed to encourage people to abstain from alcohol for 1 month.
I was sure that denying myself that glass of pinot would be challenging, but I was surprised at how little I missed it.
That said, my abstinence from alcohol did not last beyond 1 month, and I suspect that this was the case for many others who participated in Dry January. I was reintroduced to Mr. Pinot at a friend's birthday party in February, and it was then that I tagged myself as a "social drinker."
By definition, a social drinker is a person who predominantly consumes alcohol in a social setting, but not to excess levels.
If I'm honest, I can't see myself abstaining from alcohol long-term; I enjoy a drink with my friends. However, given that even modest alcohol intake has been linked to cancer and other health problems, maybe we could all benefit from cutting back on the drink.
Cancer is one of America's biggest health burdens. In fact, just last year, more than 1.6 million new cancer cases were diagnosed in the U.S., and more than 595,000 people died from the disease.
I don't want to add to these statistics. So, the next time I'm out with friends and debating that extra drink, I'll be asking myself, "Is that glass of wine really worth risking my health?"
If you're looking to limit your alcohol intake, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism provide some useful tips.