Esophageal Cancer - All Symptoms
Alcohol and Esophageal Cancer
Drinking alcohol has been linked to a higher risk of esophageal cancer, particularly for people with an inherited gene. But for others, the relationship between drinking and esophageal cancer is more complicated.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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People who drink a lot of alcohol increase their risk of esophageal cancer, but the details of the relationship between drinking and cancer are still under study. Research suggests that most forms of alcohol — especially hard liquor — significantly increase the risk of esophageal cancer, while small amounts of wine, on occasion, may not.
When you drink, your body metabolizes the alcohol into a “pretty toxic chemical” known as acetaldehyde and then further breaks it down into a harmless chemical called acetate, says Phillip J. Brooks, PhD, a neurogenetics researcher at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (part of the National Institutes of Health) in Bethesda, Md.
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However, explains Brooks, in certain people, the acetaldehyde may not be broken down as quickly and can linger, possibly causing damage to your cells that can lead to the development of esophageal cancer.
“This is one of the ways [that alcohol increases esophageal cancer risk], but not necessarily the only way,” says Brooks, who says the relationship is still being explored.
Who Is at Risk for Esophageal Cancer?
About one in three East Asians (Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese) and people of East Asian descent are at greater risk of developing esophageal cancer related to alcohol consumption, due to an inherited deficiency in an enzyme known as ALDH-2 that slows their ability to process acetaldehyde. People with this enzyme deficiency have a marked “flushing” (reddening of the face) response whenever they consume even a small amount of alcohol. They are also likely to feel nauseated or experience a racing heart as part of their body’s response to alcohol. Brooks’ research has linked this visible effect of drinking alcohol to an increased risk of esophageal cancer.
The risk of esophageal cancer increases with alcohol consumption even among people who do not have this genetic inheritance, says Brooks, but the effect is less marked.
Tips for Reducing Alcohol-Related Risk
There are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of esophageal cancer from drinking alcohol, including:
- See your doctor.Brooks recommends talking to your doctor about your risk, especially if you are of East Asian descent and have experienced the flushing response. Brooks says that while almost everyone will have some skin reddening after they drink a lot of alcohol, people who have this marked reddening after even a small amount are usually aware of it. Talking to your doctor about your concerns can help you determine a plan of action.
- Cut back.The news about alcohol is sometimes confusing, says Brooks. In some studies, the occasional, or even daily, glass of red wine has been linked to a reduced risk of esophageal cancer. However, if you drink several drinks of alcohol many times a week, you could benefit from cutting back. Brooks suggests discussing your drinking habits with your doctor as well; the occasional wine may be beneficial in other ways, so your final decision should rest upon your overall health and risk factor profile. The data on hard liquor is clear, however: Gin, whiskey, and other types of liquor definitely raise esophageal cancer risk.
- Eat healthfully.Experts point out that the antioxidants from wine that are thought to protect against cancer can also be found in fresh fruits and vegetables — so you could simply skip the wine in favor of a varied and balanced diet.
- Stop smoking.If you smoke and drink, you are getting a double dose of esophageal cancer risk. Stop smoking as part of your risk-reduction plan.
5 Ways to Quit Smoking for Good
While the relationship between drinking and cancer is still being explored, talk to your doctor about your drinking habits and whether drinking less — or changing your drink of choice — might be helpful in reducing your risk of esophageal cancer.
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