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Taking on Alcohol-Related Cancer: Knowledge, Policy, Prevention, and Care

By Lauri Beekmann, 
Executive director, NordAN
July 12, 2023


The complex relationship between alcohol and cancer calls for a comprehensive strategy that integrates informed policies, clear communication, patient-centered care, and lifestyle changes to mitigate alcohol-related cancer risks.

Alcohol's complex link with cancer, including its dual roles as a risk factor and a therapy complicator, necessitates continued, discriminating investigation. A thorough comprehension of this complex connection paves the way for more effective treatment and prevention efforts that will benefit both individuals and societies.


Alcohol and Cancer: A Complex Relationship

Alcohol, especially its main component ethanol, is a proven carcinogen. Additionally, alcohol's unpredictable interaction with cancer drugs and potential to intensify side effects, adds complexity also to cancer treatment. So, alcohol doesn´t only cause cancer, it also disturbs the treatment process.


Highlighting this complexity, oncologist Sirkku Jyrkkiö from the Cancer Society of Finland emphasizes, "Alcohol can affect the elimination of cancer drugs from the body, leading to abnormal drug metabolism. Consequently, this can increase drug side effects". Hence, the deleterious effects of alcohol present both a preventive challenge and a therapeutic obstacle, necessitating nuanced patient care and counseling.


Shaping Policies: A Key Turning Point

Around the world, efforts are being undertaken to put rules into place that will lessen the negative relationship between alcohol use and cancer. The Europe Beating Cancer Plan is a noteworthy project in this regard, where alcohol has been identified as a major concern. Philippe Roux, who leads the Plan, encapsulates the importance of proactive measures in his interview to AlcoholAndCancer by stating, "Active policy steps towards limiting alcohol accessibility, reducing demand, and improving patient care are crucial for a cancer-free Europe". This statement underscores the commitment to address alcohol-related cancer at its root. At the same time the pace European Commission moves forward creates concerns for many public health and alcohol policy organisations. As it can be expected, there are several interests at play which doesn´t always carry the public health in the center.


Effective Communication and Patient-Centric Care: Pillars of Progress

The effectiveness of policy changes can be improved by good communication and patient-centered care. Roux is an advocate of the same, underlining the crucial function of medical professionals in bridging the knowledge, policy, and individual gaps while negotiating societal pressures and individual concerns about alcohol consumption.


In this context, Jyrkkiö emphasizes the need for non-judgmental discussions, highlighting, "Discussing drinking is a sensitive topic in a doctor's office, as it can mistakenly be perceived as health terrorism. The goal, however, is to ensure the best possible treatment outcome" [4].


Towards a Comprehensive Approach

The path ahead lies in comprehensive, multi-dimensional strategies involving research, policy, communication, and patient care. All efforts must converge towards reducing the burden of alcohol-related cancers.


Echoing this sentiment, Jyrkkiö iterates, "Up to 40 per cent of cancers could be prevented with healthy lifestyles, and alcohol is one of the most significant lifestyle-related cancer risks. Higher alcohol consumption corresponds to higher risk of falling ill". Our future combat against cancer hinges on this understanding and the subsequent actions we undertake.


Bridging the Knowledge Gaps

A recent study by Lena Sharp et al. illuminates the existing knowledge gaps in this area. It revealed that despite alcohol's established status as a cancer risk factor in the European Code against Cancer (ECAC), some individuals remain unaware. Misunderstandings about alcohol's health effects persist, particularly among immigrant communities. Younger individuals and those with intellectual disabilities also struggle to follow cancer prevention recommendations, hampered by cultural norms and insufficient support.


Therefore, it is crucial to design comprehensive, culturally sensitive interventions to address these misconceptions and fill these knowledge gaps.


Beyond Awareness to Active Pursuit of Health

However, cancer prevention isn't solely about understanding risks; it is also about actively pursuing healthier lifestyles. A recent study at Newcastle University reaffirmed the pivotal role of lifestyle in cancer prevention. It found strong correlations between adherence to the 2018 World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) lifestyle-based recommendations and a decreased risk of developing several types of cancer.


The research revealed that every point increment in adherence to the Cancer Prevention Recommendations corresponded with a 12% lower risk of bowel cancer, an 11% risk reduction of breast cancer, and an 8% decrease in lung cancer risk. With nearly 40% of all cancers associated with modifiable lifestyle factors like physical inactivity, tobacco use, obesity, poor diet, and alcohol intake, the study reiterates the enormous potential for cancer prevention through lifestyle modifications.


In conclusion, an effective response to the challenges posed by alcohol-related cancer demands a comprehensive, multi-pronged strategy. Combining knowledge with active lifestyle changes, clear communication, patient-centric care, and supportive policies will lay a strong foundation for this battle. This holistic approach will pave the way towards a future where cancer is less a threat and more a challenge that can be overcome.

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