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David Jones/PA Wire

Alcohol Plays Conflicting Role in Esophageal Cancer

March 25, 2009 12:59 PM
by Emily Coakley
Alcohol consumption is linked to one type of esophageal cancer, though recent studies suggests moderate drinkers have a lower overall risk of getting that cancer.

“Asian Glow” a Sign of Higher Esophageal Cancer Risk, Study Says

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Researchers have found a potential indicator to help spot people at higher risk of getting cancer of the esophagus. In a study published in the journal PLoS Medicine said people who get flushed faces after drinking “are much more likely to develop alcohol-related esophageal cancer,” said U.S. News and World Report. The type of esophageal cancer is known as squamous cell carcinoma.

A deficiency in an enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase 2, is largely responsible for the flushing response, which occurs in about one-third of people of Korean, Japanese or Chinese descent. The condition has different names, such as “Asian flush” or “Asian glow,” according to the study, and the deficiency is inherited.
The PLoS Medicine study focuses on people of East Asian descent. The authors, a group that includes researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and Japan’s National Hospital Organization Kurihama Alcoholism Center, say doctors can urge patients who get flushed to lower their alcohol intake.

Esophageal cancer is one of the deadliest, “with five-year survival rates of 15.6% in the United States, 12.3% in Europe, and 31.6% in Japan,” the authors said.

Actor Ron Silver died March 15 after a two-year battle with esophageal cancer. Not all esophageal cancer is linked to alcohol consumption. 

In fact, studies published this month in the journal Gastroenterology, suggest that moderate wine drinking can help keep a different type of cancer, esophageal adenocarcinoma, at bay.

According to WebMD, one study reported that drinking one glass of wine each day was linked to a “56 percent decrease in the risk for developing Barrett’s esophagus.”

People who get Barrett’s esophagus are thought to have a “30- to 40-fold higher risk of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma than the general population,” WebMD reported. The condition, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a complication of gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as heartburn.

A second study, of Australians’ drinking histories and esophageal cancer, found that “heavy alcohol consumption was associated with an increased risk for squamous cell cancer of the esophagus,” WebMD reported.

The study found no link between alcohol consumption and esophageal adenocarcinoma, but WebMD added, “Moderate intake of wine or spirits (no more than a drink per day) was associated with a lower risk for both cancers, compared to nondrinkers.”

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Reference: Alcohol flushing study; Cancer web guide

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