WASHINGTON — Turn a bit red when you drink a mere half bottle of beer? If you’re of East Asian descent, consider that a warning: You may be at higher risk of alcohol-caused esophageal cancer.
Researchers reported the link Monday in hopes of increasing awareness that the inherited flushing trait — found in about a third of people from Japan, China and Korea — offers valuable health information.
Alcohol is a known risk factor for a variety of cancers, including esophageal, and heavier drinking is considered riskier than light drinking.
Lots of people turn slightly red if they imbibe too much. At issue here is facial flushing from a small amount of alcohol. It’s due to a deficiency in an enzyme that helps metabolize alcohol, called ALDH2.
People with a severe deficiency of the enzyme usually don’t drink because it makes them feel too bad; in addition to flushing they feel nausea and a rapid heartbeat.
But people with a partial deficiency may put up with the flushing. A series of studies by Dr. Akira Yokoyama of Japan’s Kurihama Alcohol Center found that those people are six to 10 times more likely to develop esophageal cancer than people who drink a comparable amount but aren’t enzyme-deficient.
Without enough of that enzyme, alcohol breaks down into a DNA-damaging chemical similar to formaldehyde but it doesn’t go the next step and turn into yet another chemical that’s non-toxic. Don’t drink, and the flushers aren’t at increased risk.
Esophageal cancer is fairly rare, but it’s also hard to treat. Worldwide, anywhere from 12 per cent to a third of people who develop it survive five years.