Drinking alcohol and cancer

Monday 14 August, 2017

Dr Harindra Jayasekara has been working on understanding the links between drinking alcohol and the risk of cancer.

When he started his PhD in 2010, Dr Harindra Jayasekara, MD, was handed a treasure trove of data. When HEALTH 2020 was first started, most studies of its kind overwhelmingly asked their participants only about their alcohol drinking in ‘the previous 12 months’. What makes the HEALTH 2020 data so valuable is that it was one of the few studies to also gather information about participants’ lifetime consumption.

Alcohol is a known carcinogen, acting as a toxin, damaging body tissues and interfering with the body’s metabolism. Dr Jayasekara wanted to find whether drinking at younger ages could affect cancer risk in later life. Since then, he and his colleagues have made some interesting – and important – findings.

Breast cancer

Drinking alcohol was already known to be a risk factor for female breast cancer, but the HEALTH 2020 data identified a critical period that affects the rest of a woman’s life: a woman who drinks in the years between her first monthly period and her first full-term pregnancy is at 35% greater risk of breast cancer than a non-drinker. In other words, women who drink before pregnancy have a 1 in 7 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer, while women who do not drink before pregnancy have a 1 in 9 chance of the disease.

These years are likely important because the breast is more vulnerable to carcinogens during this period of its rapid growth. This process of change is regulated by female reproductive hormones (such as oestrogen) and alcohol has been shown to affect these hormones and disrupt the process.

Colorectal cancer

An analysis of colorectal cancers in HEALTH 2020 participants reinforced the finding that drinking alcohol, even at younger ages, can cause the most common types of colorectal cancer later in life. These findings contributed to the Cancer Council’s public health campaign ‘Drink Less, Live More’ that was launched in 2015.

Future research

More recently, Dr Jayasekara and his collaborators have turned their attention to the link between drinking alcohol and cancer survival as well as cancer recurrence. One of these projects looks at less-common cancers, such as cancers of the pancreas, thyroid, kidney, blood and stomach.

Because these cancers are not common, and it is not good science to reach conclusions based on a small number of cases, HEALTH 2020 researchers are collaborating with other researchers worldwide, making this the largest-ever pooling project for alcohol related cancer.