Alcohol Use and Cancer Risk
Many people are aware that heavy alcohol use can cause health problems such as cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, but many are not aware that alcohol can also increase your risk of developing cancer. Alcohol use has been linked to an increased risk of several types of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), esophagus (swallowing tube), liver, breast (in women), colon and rectum. The risk for each of these cancers increases with the amount of alcohol consumed over time, regardless of the type of drink; beer, wine, or liquor (distilled spirits).
Heavy drinkers have a higher risk of developing these cancers than those who do not drink. The American Cancer Society recommends limiting alcohol consumption to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. (A drink is defined as 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.) Higher breast cancer risk has been associated with just a few drinks a week, so the risk is not limited to heavy drinking. For cancer prevention, The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends not to drink any alcohol.
Those who also smoke cigarettes, or use other tobacco products, in combination with alcohol, are at an even higher risk, particularly for cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, and esophagus. The two work together to cause more damage than either does on its own.
If you are a moderate to heavy drinker, you can decrease your risk of cancers associated with alcohol by significantly cutting down alcohol use or stopping altogether. It may be difficult at first to deal with alcohol withdraw symptoms and may be even harder to stop drinking entirely, but it is worth it to reap the benefits of improving your health. You should talk to and get help from your healthcare provider if you have decided to quit drinking in order to better manage the symptoms of withdrawal, particularly if you are a heavy drinker. After 15-20 years of being alcohol-free, your risk of developing esophageal or head and neck cancer does decrease.
There are reports that low to moderate alcohol consumption (1- 2 drinks per day for a man, 1 drink per day for a woman) may lower one's risk of heart and cardiovascular disease. The potential benefits of low-moderate alcohol consumption should be weighed against other possible health risks for each individual person. If you have questions about the safety of your level of alcohol intake, talk to your healthcare provider. Under any circumstances, heavy alcohol use contributes to cancer risk as well as many other health issues and should be avoided.
Resources for more information
- The American Cancer Society: Alcohol Use and Cancer
- American Institute for Cancer Research
- Journal of the National Cancer Institute: Moderate Alcohol Intake and Cancer Incidence in Women
Cao, Y., & Giovannucci, E. L. (2016, August). Alcohol as a risk factor for cancer. In Seminars in oncology nursing (Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 325-331). WB Saunders.
Hashibe M, Brennan P, Chuang SC, et al. Interaction between tobacco and alcohol use and the risk of head and neck cancer: pooled analysis in the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology Consortium. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention 2009;18(2):541-550.
National Cancer Institute: Alcohol and Cancer Risk. June 24, 2013.
WCRF/AICR Continuous Update Project Database and Findings. AICR.
Theodoratou, E., Timofeeva, M., Li, X., Meng, X., & Ioannidis, J. P. (2017). Nature, nurture, and cancer risks: genetic and nutritional contributions to cancer. Annual review of nutrition,37, 293-320.
Tramacere, I., Negri, E., Bagnardi, V., Garavello, W., Rota, M., Scotti, L., ... & La Vecchia, C. (2010). A meta-analysis of alcohol drinking and oral and pharyngeal cancers. Part 1: overall results and dose-risk relation. Oral oncology, 46(7), 497-503.