Does Substance Abuse Increase the Risk of Getting Cancer?
What is Cancer?
Cancer is a general term that applies to a collection of related diseases where abnormal cells in the body begin to divide and spread in an uncontrollable fashion. They invade normal tissues and can significantly disrupt the normal functioning of the system, resulting in severe health issues and even death.
Increased risk to develop different types of cancer is associated with the chronic abuse of most illicit drugs; however, clear causal mechanisms are not always well defined, and other factors may also contribute to this increased risk. This article will discuss some of the major findings.
Resources about cancer & substance use disorders
- One of the best resources to learn more about cancer and substance use disorders is the American Cancer Society’s
- Mayo Clinic offers useful information about the risk factors for developing cancer.
- The National Cancer Institute also offers information regarding risk factors for developing different types of cancer.
What is the relationship between tobacco and cancer?
The use of tobacco products, especially smoking cigarettes, is the most preventable cause of cancer in the world. Tobacco products, especially cigarettes, contain over 70 known carcinogens that are associated with an increased risk of developing cancer.
In addition, chronic secondhand smoke exposure is also considered a significant risk factor for the development of cancer. There is no safe level of tobacco use, and there is no safe method of tobacco use. Quitting tobacco use at any time can reduce the risk of getting a diagnosis of cancer.
Tobacco is associated with the development of a number of different types of cancer, some of which include:
- Lung cancer
- Larynx cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Throat cancer
- Cancer of the mouth
- Kidney cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Stomach cancer
- Liver cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Colon cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Rectal cancer
- Myeloid leukemia
Alcohol and cancer
Chronic use or abuse of alcohol is also associated with an increased risk to develop cancer. Chronic use of alcohol is linked to an increased risk of the development of any type of cancer; however, numerous epidemiological studies have indicated that there is a high association with chronic use of alcohol, and especially with chronic abuse of alcohol, and the development of several types of cancer.
- Head and neck cancer risk is increased by chronic alcohol use, especially cancers of the mouth, larynx, and throat.
- Esophageal cancer is associated with chronic alcohol use. A particular type of esophageal cancer, known as esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, appears to be associated with chronic alcohol use and individuals who inherit a deficiency in the ability to metabolize alcohol.
- A primary cause of liver cancer is chronic alcohol use and abuse.
- More than 100 studies have linked an increased risk for breast cancer to chronic alcohol abuse.
- Numerous studies have linked chronic alcohol use and colorectal cancer.
- The combination of chronic alcohol use or abuse and the use of tobacco products results in a significant increase in the development of any cancer compared to individuals who only smoke cigarettes or who only drink alcohol.
Numerous health organizations have designated alcohol consumption as a known human carcinogen. The evidence indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks over time, the higher the risk of developing cancer even when controlling for other factors.
Stimulants Other than Nicotine
The abuse of any type of drug for a long period of time is associated with an increased risk for a number of health issues, including a risk to develop cancer. Often, the risk to develop cancer and the abuse of specific drugs may be related through some tertiary mechanism, such as an individual engaging in polydrug abuse, the tendency for those who chronically abuse drugs to neglect issues with personal hygiene and health, and other factors.
There is some research that indicates that children prescribed the drug Ritalin for ADHD demonstrate the development of chromosomal abnormalities that are associated with increased risk for cancer. Other research has suggested that the use of stimulants like cocaine may be associated with an increased risk for the development of certain types of cancer, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. However, the direct link between the use of many different stimulants (except for nicotine) and the development of cancer has not been firmly established.
Nonetheless, individuals who abuse stimulant medications and drugs often also abuse other substances such as alcohol. Abusing alcohol in combination with other drugs is obviously associated with an increased risk to develop many different types of cancers.
Other Central Nervous System Depressants and Cannabis Products
Alcohol is the central nervous system depressant with the most convincing research evidence that there is a very strong link between chronic alcohol use or abuse and the development of certain types of cancers. Other central nervous system depressants have less direct evidence that they may be causal factors in the development of cancers; however, like any drug of abuse, individuals who chronically abuse central nervous system depressants are at risk for increased health issues that include the development of certain types of cancers.
These increased risks may be due to tertiary factors associated with the abuse of central nervous system depressants (such as needle sharing or engaging in other risky behaviors) and not so much associated with direct effects of the drugs themselves. For example, there appears to be little solid research that smoking marijuana leads to an increased risk for lung cancer despite many individuals smoking unfiltered marijuana cigarettes. However, it is important to remember that having a substance use disorder is associated with increased risks for numerous health conditions, including an increased risk for developing cancer overall.
Steroids and cancer
It is well established that the abuse of anabolic steroids can result in a number of different types of cancers, including liver cancer, kidney cancer, prostate cancer, and pancreatic cancer. Abuse of anabolic steroids is most often associated with individuals who are trying to increase their performance in athletic endeavors or enhance their physique through bodybuilding.
Conclusion & Resources
Certain drugs, such as tobacco and alcohol, are considered to be strong carcinogenic drugs that most likely directly cause certain types of cancer. Individuals who mix these drugs with other drugs of abuse will increase the risk of developing different types of cancer even though some of these other drugs may not have research evidence that directly associates them with the development of cancer. Chronic abuse of any drug is associated with a number of health issues, including an increased risk to develop cancer. In many cases, there are a number of factors that contribute to this increased risk.