Bertrand Russell once described drunkenness as “temporary suicide,” a phrase that might turn out to be more literally true than the great philosopher knew. Heavy drinkers of beer and spirits face a much higher risk of developing cancer than the population at large, according to a recent study published in the journal Cancer Detection and Prevention by researchers from McGill, INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier and Université de Montréal.
Their findings show that people in the highest consumption category increased their risk of developing esophageal cancer sevenfold, colon cancer by 80 per cent and even lung cancer by 50 per cent.
In all, the researchers found statistically significant relationships between heavy consumption of beer and spirits and six different cancers. Moderate drinking (i.e., less than daily) and wine consumption did not show the same effects.
“We looked at the data in two ways,” says lead author Andrea Benedetti, who was a PREECAN postdoctoral fellow at the INRS, Institut Armand-Frappier while this work was conducted. Benedetti is now an assistant professor in McGill’s Department of Medicine and in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health. “We compared people who drank heavily to our reference group, who abstained or drank only very occasionally. We also looked for trends across our categories: non-drinkers, weekly drinkers and daily drinkers.”
“This study crystalizes many strands of evidence from different studies on different types of cancer and alcohol consumption,” says Dr. Jack Siemiatycki, Canada Research Chair and Guzzo Chair in Environment and Cancer at Université de Montréal.
“For the most part we showed that light drinkers were less affected or not affected at all,” says Benedetti. “It is people who drink every day or multiple times a day who are at risk. This adds to the growing body of evidence that heavy drinking is extremely unhealthy in so many ways. Cancer very much included.”
This study was supported by Health Canada, the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute, the Institut de recherche en santé et sécurité au travail du Québec, the Fonds de la recherche en santé du Québec and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.