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Study: Drinking Coffee Might Help Colorectal Cancer Patients Live Longer

Close up macro photo of roasted coffee beans.

 Igor Haritanovich / Pexels

Key Takeaways

  • New research found an association between increased coffee consumption and improved colorectal cancer outcomes.
  • It is too early to recommend drinking coffee as a potential treatment for colorectal cancer, but the study suggests that drinking coffee isn’t harmful and could be beneficial.
  • Coffee contains more than 1,000 chemical compounds, including some with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer properties.

Coffee consumption might be associated with an increased lifespan in patients with advanced or metastatic colorectal cancer, according to an original investigation published in JAMA Oncology.

“Like any observational study, the present one does not establish a causal relationship between coffee drinking and reduced risk of colorectal cancer progression and death,” co-first author Chen Yuan, ScD and senior author Kimmie Ng, MD, MPH, tells Verywell Health in a joint statement via email. Yuan is a research fellow and Ng is an associate professor of medicine at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

“The study does not provide sufficient grounds for recommending, at this point, that patients with advanced or metastatic colorectal cancer start drinking coffee or increase their consumption of coffee," say Yuan and Ng. "Although it is premature to recommend a high intake of coffee as a potential treatment for colorectal cancer, our study suggests that drinking coffee is not harmful and may potentially be beneficial.”

Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2020, there will be 104,610 new cases of colon cancer and 43,340 new cases of rectal cancer in the U.S.

Coffee and Colon Health 

Coffee contains more than 1,000 chemical compounds, including caffeine and kahweol. It has also been found to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer properties.

Chen Yuan, ScD and Kimmie Ng, MD, MPH

Although it is premature to recommend a high intake of coffee as a potential treatment for colorectal cancer, our study suggests that drinking coffee is not harmful and may potentially be beneficial.

— Chen Yuan, ScD and Kimmie Ng, MD, MPH

Earlier research had identified coffee as the largest source of dietary antioxidants in the U.S. Researchers then become interested in studying coffee’s effect on the body.

“There has been an increasing number of studies on the relationships between coffee consumption and other cancers, as well as other chronic diseases such as diabetes mellitus and metabolic syndrome,” say Yuan and Ng.

Both regular and decaf coffee stimulates colonic motor activity. For some people, a cup of coffee can have a laxative effect. Yuan and Ng explain that habitual coffee consumption can increase insulin sensitivity, making the cells more reactive to the hormone.

Yuan and Ng also say that it's not clear whether how you take your coffee (milk, sugar, both, or neither) has an effect on colon health—especially for patients with metastatic colorectal cancer.

Previous studies have found that higher milk intake was associated with improved overall survival in patients with non-metastatic colorectal cancer. On the other hand, higher fructose intake was associated with worse recurrence-free survival in patients with stage 3 colon cancer.

The Study

Yuan, Ng, and their team analyzed data from a cohort of participants enrolled in the completed phase 3 clinical trial, Cancer and Leukemia Group B (CALGB; now a part of the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology)/SWOG 80405.

Patients were considered eligible for the trial if they had confirmed, unresectable, locally advanced, or metastatic colorectal cancer. Data were collected from October 27, 2005, to January 18, 2018.

The original trial sought to find the optimal biologic therapy and chemotherapy treatment combination. Participants also had the option to participate in a diet and lifestyle companion study.

During the first month of enrollment in the trial, the participants were asked how often in the past three months they had consumed 131 foods and vitamin/mineral supplements, including whether they drank regular or decaf coffee, and if so, how much coffee they consumed.

After controlling for variables thought to affect outcomes for patients with colorectal cancer, the researchers analyzed a total of 1,171 patients with advanced or metastatic colorectal cancer.

The typical patient in the trial was 59 years old, male (59%), and white (86%).

On average, the frequent coffee drinkers consumed less than four cups of coffee per day. They also had a higher average consumption of alcohol and were more likely to be current or former smokers—factors known to increase a person's risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Chen Yuan, ScD and Kimmie Ng, MD, MPH

We were surprised that consumption of caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee had similar associations with survival outcomes.

— Chen Yuan, ScD and Kimmie Ng, MD, MPH

The researchers observed that higher coffee consumption at the time of study enrollment was associated with a lower risk of disease progression and death. The improved patient outcomes applied to both people who drank regular and decaf coffee. 

The Findings

The median length of participants’ progression-free survival (defined as the time from random drug assignment to first documented disease progression or death) were found to be:

  • 12 months for never drinking coffee
  • 12 months for drinking one or fewer cups of coffee
  • 13 months for drinking two to three cups of coffee
  • 14 months for drinking four or more cups of coffee 

The researchers also found participants’ median length of overall survival was:

  • 31 months for never drinking coffee
  • 30 months for drinking one or fewer cups of coffee
  • 32 months for drinking two to three cups of coffee
  • 39 months for drinking four or more cups of coffee

“We were surprised that consumption of caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee had similar associations with survival outcomes, highlighting the roles, yet not fully elucidated, for the non-caffeine components of coffee in colorectal cancer outcomes,” Yuan and Ng say of the findings.

The authors note that, to their knowledge, this is the first study that examines coffee consumption in relation to survival among patients with metastatic colorectal cancer.

They feel these findings are promising—as a significant number of patients with colorectal cancer ultimately develop metastatic colorectal cancer, for which there is no cure, only palliative treatments.

Recent Research

While this study builds on recent research, it’s important to note that its findings are still limited or mixed. There isn’t a causal relationship between coffee consumption and outcomes for colon cancer patients, and there are no broad recommendations to drink coffee for colorectal health.

Data was often drawn from larger studies that were more generally about colorectal cancer that asked select questions about coffee consumption. This makes it difficult to isolate coffee consumption from other diet and lifestyle behaviors.

There is no causal relationship between coffee consumption and outcomes for colon cancer patients, and there are no broad recommendations to drink coffee for colorectal health.

For example, in one study, coffee consumption was associated with 26% lower odds of developing colorectal cancer. In another study, researchers measured caffeine consumption with diagnostic data from two longitudinal health studies of 1,599 patients diagnosed with stage 1 or 2 cancer. 

The results indicated that higher coffee intake was associated with reduced cancer recurrence and death in 953 patients with stage 3 colon cancer. After adjusting for demographic, lifestyle, and other factors, the researchers found that patients who drank four or more cups of coffee per day were 52% less likely to die of colorectal cancer and 30% less likely to die of any cause compared to those who did not drink coffee.

A recent meta-analysis underscores the need for more research: coffee was found to have a significant protective effect in only seven U.S. studies out of a total of 26 studies.

Future Research

Yuan and Ng say they are currently planning follow-up studies to better understand the biological mechanisms that could explain the protective benefit of coffee, as well as the molecular features that could be used to identify patients who would benefit most from drinking coffee.

While Yuang and Ng say that there are no known risks of drinking coffee for people with colorectal cancer, they add that more research is needed. They also say there is no definitive evidence that coffee consumption can prevent colorectal cancer.

Yuan and Ng recommend that people get regular screenings and make modifiable lifestyle and dietary changes to help lower their risk of developing colorectal cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, there are several lifestyle changes that support overall good health and can help reduce one's risk of colorectal cancer.

Steps you can take to improve your health and reduce your risk include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Increasing the amount and intensity of physical activity
  • Limiting red and processed meats and eating more vegetables, fruits, and grains
  • Not drinking alcohol
  • Quitting smoking

What This Means For You

While more research is needed and no broad recommendations are being made based on the recent study, patients with metastatic colon cancer might benefit from drinking two or three cups of coffee a day—and at the very least, it's not likely to harm them.

 

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