Alcohol and Cancer: What You Didn’t Know

woman with head down drinking alcohol
Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to various types of cancers in the body.

When you think of alcohol you might not immediately associate it with cancer. But think again. There is a growing amount of research that links alcohol consumption to cancer. And the more you drink over time, the higher your risk becomes.

When you drink alcohol, your body breaks down a chemical called ethanol. Ethanol produces acetaldehyde, which is toxic to our bodies. It can damage our DNA and impair our ability to absorb much needed nutrients like vitamin A, folate, vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin E.

Drinking can also cause our bodies to increase its levels of estrogen—which can increase the risk of breast cancer. Not all heavy drinkers develop cancer, but some of them do. Even people who drink moderately can develop alcohol-related cancers.

Can you guess what 5 cancers have been clinically proven to be related to drinking? Continue reading to find out—you might be surprised.

Head and Neck

Drinking alcohol can place you at risk for developing certain types of head and neck cancers. Studies have shown that drinking can cause the following cancers:1

  • Oral cavity.
  • Throat.
  • Voice box.

If you drink 3.5 or more drinks a day, you have 2-3 times the risk of developing head and neck cancers when compared to people who don’t drink. Studies also show that combining alcohol and cigarettes can dramatically increase the risk of head and neck cancers.2

Esophageal

Esophageal squamous cell carcinoma is a specific type of esophageal cancer. This cancer is associated with heavy alcohol use.3 If you have deficiencies in certain enzymes that break down alcohol, you can be especially at-risk for developing this type of cancer.

What is a squamous cell? It is a thin, flat cell that sort of resembles a fish scale. These cells are found in our skin tissue, organs, and the lining of our respiratory and digestive tracts. Like other cancers listed here, combining cigarettes and alcohol can increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer when compared to using either alcohol or cigarettes alone.

It is interesting to note that men are 3 times more likely than women to get esophageal cancer.4

Liver

You may have heard that drinking can cause a condition called cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver. When you drink excessively and for a long period of time, your liver is under a lot of stress. This can cause irreversible damage to the organ5 and cirrhosis can lead to liver cancer.6

Alcohol consumption is the primary cause for liver cancer. Heavy drinking can increase your risk for infection of hepatitis C virus (HCV), which can, in turn, lead to liver cancer as well.7

Colorectal (Colon)

Did you know that drinking alcohol can increase your risk of colon and rectum cancers? This is an unfortunate truth and what’s more, colon and rectum cancers are the 2nd leading cause of death in the United States.8

The amount of alcohol you drink will affect your risk for developing colorectal cancer. When compared to non-drinkers or occasional drinkers, if you drink 3.5 drinks or more a day, you have 1.5 times the risk of developing colorectal cancer.9

For every 10 grams of alcohol you drink per day—which is just under one drink—you increase your risk for developing colon cancer by 7%.

Breast

According to research studies, any amount of alcohol can increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.8 The risk of developing breast cancer is as high as 12% when a woman consumes 10 grams—or just under one drink—a day.9

Of course, there are risks and benefits to drinking. Studies have proven that drinking low to moderate amounts of alcohol can lower the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and even death.10, 11

You might be asking yourself, “so…how much is too much?” On the one hand, drinking less than one drink a day increases my risk for breast cancer, and on the other hand, studies say that one drink a day can lower the risk of heart disease. There is no clear answer to this question.

Everyone has a different set of risk factors for breast cancer. Genes, environment, and smoking history all play a major role in whether or not you will be diagnosed. If you are unsure about how much alcohol you should be drinking, talk to your doctor. They can help talk about your risk and make recommendations.


Sources

1. Baan, R., Straif, K., Grosse, Y., Secretan, B., El Ghissassi, F., Bouvard, V., … & WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph Working Group. (2007). Carcinogenicity of alcoholic beverages. The lancet oncology, 8(4), 292-293.

2. Hashibe, M., Brennan, P., Chuang, S. C., Boccia, S., Castellsague, X., Chen, C., … & Fernandez, L. (2009). 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, 18(2), 541-550.

3. American Cancer Society. (2016). What are the risk factors for cancer of the esophagus?

4. University of Maryland Medical Center. (2015). Cirrhosis.

5. Bagnardi, V., Blangiardo, M., La Vecchia, C., & Corrao, G. (2001). Alcohol consumption and the risk of cancer: a meta-analysis. Alcohol Research & Health  25(4), 263-271.

6. Sheets, S. S. F. (2014). Colon and Rectum Cancer.

7. Fedirko, V., Tramacere, I., Bagnardi, V., Rota, M., Scotti, L., Islami, F., … & Boffetta, P. (2011). Alcohol drinking and colorectal cancer risk: an overall and dose–response meta-analysis of published studies. Annals of Oncology, 22(9), 1958-1972.

8. National Cancer Institute. (2013). Alcohol and Cancer Risk.

9. Allen, N. E., Beral, V., Casabonne, D., Kan, S. W., Reeves, G. K., Brown, A., & Green, J. (2009). Moderate alcohol intake and cancer incidence in women. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 101(5), 296-305.

10. Mukamal, K. J., Chung, H., Jenny, N. S., Kuller, L. H., Longstreth, W. T., Mittleman, M. A., … & Siscovick, D. S. (2006). Alcohol consumption and risk of coronary heart disease in older adults: the Cardiovascular Health Study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society54(1), 30-37.

11. Muntwyler, J., Hennekens, C. H., Buring, J. E., & Gaziano, J. M. (1998). Mortality and light to moderate alcohol consumption after myocardial infarction. The Lancet352(9144), 1882-1885.