The link between alcohol and cancer is well-established—in fact, in its Report on Carcinogens, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists consumption of alcoholic beverages as a known carcinogen. ‘Excessive and prolonged alcohol use can weaken the immune system, which is important for preventing and controlling cancer,’ says Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Head and Neck Oncologic Surgery at UPMC.
Dr. Kabat notes that the risk is much worse if you smoke in addition to drinking heavily. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are other links between alcohol and cancer: The ethanol in alcohol breaks down to a toxic chemical that can damage DNA; alcohol may prevent the body from absorbing nutrients that may decrease cancer risk; and it increases estrogen, which is linked to breast cancer.
Cancer-causing chemicals could also enter alcoholic beverages during the fermentation process. However, ‘moderate alcohol, particularly red wine, may have anti-inflammatory properties that contribute to a larger preventative goal,’ Dr. Francis says. ‘Personally, I enjoy moderate alcohol as part of a lifestyle that promotes gratitude and social engagement.’