Even Light Drinking Increases Your Risk of Cancer, Doctors Warn

A glass of wine during a tasting in France. Doctors warn that any alcohol consumption at all can increase cancer risk. GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images

Happy hour just got a little bit sad with news that any alcohol (yes, that includes the glass of wine at dinner) is linked with increased cancer risk. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) issued a statement Tuesday saying that drinking alcohol in light, moderate or heavy amounts raises your chances of being diagnosed with breast, colon, esophageal, larynx and oral cancers.

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According to the organization's paper, published in their own medical journal, nearly 6 percent of all cancer deaths worldwide could be attributed to alcohol in 2012. In the United States, that estimate is smaller, at 3.5 percent.

The doctors point out that while most alcohol-related cancers are among those who drink heavily, even light drinking isn't without risk—which most people don't know.

In October, the ASCO garnered an online nationally representative survey through Harris Poll. It found that fewer than one in three people realize that drinking alcohol is a cancer risk factor.

"People typically don't associate drinking beer, wine and hard liquor with increasing their risk of developing cancer in their lifetimes," ASCO President Bruce Johnson said in a statement. "However, the link between increased alcohol consumption and cancer has been firmly established and gives the medical community guidance on how to help their patients reduce their risk of cancer."

Of course, public confusion is understandable, given that studies tout the antioxidant benefits of wine. So that glass of heart-healthy red surely can't be bad for you, right? Not according to the doctors, who took the any-alcohol-is-still-alcohol approach.

"The answer is that the associations between alcohol drinking and cancer risk have been observed consistently regardless of the specific type of alcoholic beverage," they wrote in the report.

The reason that drinking isn't entirely safe is because ethanol found in alcoholic beverages turn into a toxic chemical once broken down in the body. This new toxin, acetaldehyde, can damage DNA and proteins. Plus, alcohol can trigger oxidation in the body, which also damages DNA and proteins, in addition to making it harder to absorb nutrients.

A glass of beer shown in Melbourne, Australia. Doctors say that all alcohol can increase risk. WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

While this new statement is likely to spur shock, it isn't actually new. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that cancer risk can increase even when low amounts of alcohol are consumed.

If you are going to imbibe, the CDC says it should be consumed moderately, which is up to one drink a day for women and two drinks for men. These figures are the max amount that should be consumed in a day and not an average for the week.

However, it's not all bad news. The doctors said some studies show you could lower your risk to that of someone who has never consumed alcohol if you give it up for more than 20 years.