Head and Neck Cancers and Alcohol: Get the Facts

By Robert S. Pezzolesi, MPH, Founding Director,
New York Alcohol Policy Alliance

There’s been a lot in the news lately about alcohol and cancer. But what about head and neck cancers? Can alcohol play a role in getting head and neck cancers, or in affecting the treatment, quality of life, or survival of people who been diagnosed with those cancers?

In a word: Yes.

According to the most respected experts in cancer research – including the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), and the American Cancer Society (ACS) – drinking alcohol is a causal risk factor for cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus. In fact, in the U.S., about 27% of all cancers of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx, and about 34% of all esophageal cancers, can be attributed to alcohol use.

This is why the IARC and AICR, for purposes of cancer prevention, recommend not to drink alcohol. For those that do drink, experts recommend sticking to moderate levels – meaning 1 drink a day or less for women, and 2 drinks a day or less for men. Also, it’s important to remember that those daily limits are not meant to be averaged over several days. “Saving up” drinks for the weekend defeats the purpose of these limits and can be dangerous. Problem drinking – including binge drinking (4 or more drinks in one sitting for a woman, 5 or more for a man) and heavy drinking (8 or more drinks per week for women, 15 or more drinks per week for men) can lead to a range of health and social problems, including cancer risk.

You probably already know that tobacco is another risk factor for head and neck cancers. Tobacco and alcohol consumption, separately, are serious risk factors for getting cancers of the head and neck. Together, their effect is multiplied, so that so that people who both drink and smoke are 35 times more likely to get oral cancer than people who never smoke or drink.

As for those undergoing treatment for head and neck cancers, most experts recommend that people being treated for cancer avoid drinking alcohol, as it can interact poorly with some chemotherapeutic medications and irritate mouth sores caused by some cancer treatments.

The research is somewhat mixed on how drinking alcohol affects survivors of head and neck cancers, including their quality of life, cancer recurrence, and length of life. Some, but not all, studies have found that drinking during and/or after treatment can decrease survival for head and neck cancer patients. Problem drinking has been found to be connected to lower quality of life and greater risk of depression among head and neck cancer survivors.

So what’s the bottom line?

For individuals, when it comes to alcohol, less is better.

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