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Dr. Anne McTiernan
Dr. Anne McTiernan, Fred Hutch Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

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Dr. Anne McTiernan on expert panel that reports strong link between alcohol consumption and liver cancer

Three or more drinks a day significantly increase risk, but coffee can decrease risk

Consuming three or more alcoholic drinks a day is linked to a significant increase in the risk of developing liver cancer, according to a report released this week by World Cancer Research Fund International. Fred Hutch cancer prevention researcher Dr. Anne McTiernan was on the international expert panel that has provided the clearest indication to date of how many drinks may actually cause liver cancer.

The 10-member panel, which analyzed 34 studies from around the world involving more than 8 million men and women and more than 24,000 cases of liver cancer – also found strong evidence that:

  • Being overweight/obese can cause liver cancer.
  • Foods contaminated by aflatoxins, which are produced by a fungus found in inappropriately stored food, can cause liver cancer. Foods commonly contaminated by the fungus, called Aspergillus, include cereals, spices, nuts, dried fruit and figs from warmer regions of the world.

Other established causes of liver cancer include cirrhosis of the liver, long-term use of oral contraceptives containing high doses of estrogen and progesterone, chronic viral hepatitis and smoking.

The panel also found:

  • Drinking coffee decreases the risk of liver cancer, but further research is needed to determine how much and what type of coffee may confer a protective effect. 
  • There is limited evidence that eating a diet rich in fish and engaging in physical activity may confer protection against liver cancer.

The bottom line, McTiernan said, is to maintain a healthy weight and avoid alcohol or drink only in moderation, which amounts to no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women.

Liver cancer, which is the second most common cause of cancer death worldwide, accounted for 746,000 deaths in 2012.

The report was part of the WCRF’s Continuous Update Project, or CUP, which analyzes global cancer prevention and survival research linked to diet, nutrition, physical activity and weight.

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