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One thing about cancer: you're never too young to get it. If you think cancer is a disease that only senior citizens or middle-aged people have to worry about, better think again. Cancer can strike anyone of any age, and the chances are greater for users of alcohol.

Considerable evidence suggests a connection between heavy alcohol consumption and increased risk of cancer. In fact, an estimated 2 to 4 percent of all cancer cases are thought to be caused either directly or indirectly by alcohol.

The strongest link with alcohol involves cancers of the upper digestive tract, including the esophagus, mouth, pharynx and larynx. An estimated 75% of esophageal cancers in the United States are attributable to chronic, excessive alcohol consumption. Nearly 50% of cancers of the mouth, pharynx and larynx are associated with heavy drinking. People who drink large amounts of alcohol over time have an increased risk of these cancers, compared with abstainers. If they drink and smoke, the risk is even more dramatic.

Prolonged, heavy drinking has been associated in many cases with primary liver cancer. However, it is liver cirrhosis, whether caused by alcohol or another factor, that is thought to induce the cancer. In the United States, liver cancer is relatively uncommon, afflicting approximately two people per 100,000, but excessive alcohol consumption is linked to as many as 35% of these cases by some researchers. (For information on alcohol and other liver diseases, check out "Loving Your Liver" elsewhere in this section.)

Many scientific studies suggest that a woman's risk of developing breast cancer increases with alcohol consumption, as well as age. Particularly vulnerable are women over 50 who have been heavy drinkers over a period of years; their chances of developing breast cancer are up to 18 times greater than non-drinkers. Research indicates that alcohol may play an indirect role in this disease by increasing estrogen levels in premenopausal women, which, in turn, may promote breast cancer. Thus, for younger women to lessen their risk of breast cancer, a wise choice might be to limit alcoholic drinks to no more than one per day.

Sitting in a dark bar can be just as hazardous to a woman's health as lying in the sun. Research indicates that women who average only two drinks a day, four days a week, are 2 1/2 times more likely to develop melanoma (skin cancer) than women who don't drink. Experts recommend that women limit themselves to one drink a day, and men - who can also be victims of skin cancer - to no more than two drinks a day.

Some studies have found a link between alcohol use and cancers of the colon, stomach, pancreas and lungs. Although there's no evidence that alcohol itself is a carcinogen, it has been associated with suppression of the human immune system. Immune suppression makes chronic alcohol abusers more susceptible to various infectious diseases and, theoretically, to cancer.