Reviewed by James Ives, M.Psych. (Editor) Jan 8 2020
New research in the January 2020 issue of JNCCN- Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network uses data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) from 2000 to 2017 to examine self-reported drinking habits among people reporting a cancer diagnosis. The researchers found that of 34,080 survey participants, 56.5% were current drinkers, 34.9% exceeded moderate drinking levels, and 21% engaged in binge drinking. This is the first large study to be done on alcohol use in the oncology population. Given that alcohol has been identified as a risk factor for several cancers (and contributed to 5.8% of cancer deaths in 2012), the researchers were surprised by how high those numbers were.
We recommend that providers screen for alcohol use at regular intervals and provide resources to assist in cutting down use for those who may engage in excessive drinking behaviors. Typically, questions about alcohol use are just asked once when the patient first enters the medical system and then copied into subsequent notes as part of the patient's social history." Nina Niu Sanford, MD, Assistant Professor, Dedman Family Scholar in Clinical Care, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Department of Radiation Oncology
For the purposes of the study, excessive drinking was defined as more than one drink a day for women, and more than two drinks a day for men, per CDC guidelines. Binge drinking was defined in the same guidelines as consuming enough alcohol to raise blood alcohol content to at least .08%, which generally means at least four drinks within two hours for women, and at least five for men. For this study, the researchers defined binge drinking as the consumption of at least five drinks in one day at any point over the past year. The authors noted that there aren't currently studies that establish safe levels of alcohol use when it comes to cancer risk, but studies have suggested the risk is higher for people who engage in binge drinking.
Further examination of the data showed binge drinking rates were much higher for younger survivors. Among those age 18 to 34, 23.6% met the criteria for binge drinking, while only 2.6% of those 75-and-older reported the same. Likewise, survivors of cancer types that are more associated with younger people-;like cervical, testicular, head and neck cancers, and melanoma-;were more likely to report drinking at all levels, while drinking was much less common for survivors of breast cancer. Somewhat paradoxically, the researchers also found that better self-reported health correlated to more drinking. Related Stories
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