Even moderate alcohol can cause cancer

A drink or two a day -- that's all it takes.

That's the very definition of a moderate drinking habit, but it's enough to dramatically increase your risk of cancer as well as your odds of dying from the disease.

Sobering new numbers show that alcohol is a leading cause of cancer, responsible for at least 20,000 deaths each year in the United States alone. That's 1 in 30 cancer deaths, or 3.5 percent of the total, all from a single completely preventable cause.

Many of these deaths are among heavy drinkers and alcoholics. But many others are not -- and nearly a third of those preventable cancer deaths are among people who average just 1.5 drinks a day, according to the new study in the American Journal of Public Health.

That's the same amount of alcohol that many people wrongly assume is acceptable or even healthy, a habit they would classify as moderate drinking.

Clearly, there's nothing healthy about it -- especially for women, because the new study confirms that a full 15 percent of deaths from breast cancer are related to drinking.

And yes, that includes so-called "moderate" drinking.

While the risk may be highest in women, men aren't off the hook here. We know from previous studies that drinking (again, even moderate drinking) can increase the risk of oral cancers, colorectal cancers, and liver cancer, just to name a few.

Now, I know people with bad or moderate drinking habits who shrug them off and say things like "you have to die of something."

Some of them are even patients of mine.

But these aren't cancers that will kill you late in life, when you might expect to "die of something." No, the new study finds that each person killed by an alcohol-related cancer dies an average of 18 years earlier than they would have if they managed to avoid booze.

So while it's true we'll all die of "something," I think you should aim for something else. That means the best option here is to not drink at all, but I'm a realist. I know most people will continue to drink no matter what the science shows and no matter what I write.

If you're a drinker, do yourself and your family a favor and keep it even less than moderate. Don't drink daily, and limit yourself to one or two at a time when you do drink.

And if you're not a drinker, don't start.

I've got more news on cancer coming up next. Keep reading!