Alcohol use accounted for roughly 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States in 2009, a new study finds.
This amounts to nearly 20,000 Americans who lost their lives to cancer that year as a result of drinking.
Researchers also found that alcohol is a leading contributor to premature death from any cause, and they estimated that each alcohol-related cancer death resulted in 18 years of potential life lost. In other words, a woman who dies from alcohol-related breast cancer at age 60 likely would have lived until age 78 had cancer not cut her life short.
"Alcohol is a known cancer-causing agent in humans, but it has been severely overlooked as a preventable cause of cancer deaths," said study co-author Timothy Naimi, a physician and alcohol researcher at Boston University Medical Center. "People need to know the impact of alcohol on cancer deaths because it's another reason why they should not drink excessively."
Among men, cancers of the upper airway (meaning the oral cavity and pharynx or the larynx) and the esophagus were the most fatal cancers pegged to alcohol. They killed approximately 6,000 men.
Among women, breast cancer was the top cause of cancer death. About 15 percent of breast cancer deaths in 2009 were linked to alcohol.
Although it's not exactly clear why alcohol increases cancer risk, one theory is that it damages DNA material in cells.