Alcohol and cancer

Can drinking alcohol really change your chances of getting cancer?

Unfortunately, the consequences of drinking too much alcohol can be far worse than a nasty hangover and hazy memories of bad dancing and inappropriate comments.

Regularly drinking to excess can increase your risk of serious illnesses, such as cancer.

In the UK in 2011 around 4,100 people died of liver cancer, that is 11 people every day (3).

Of course, not everyone who drinks will get cancer. But scientists have found that cancer is more common in people who drink alcohol than those who don’t.

Alcohol can cause seven types of cancer

Drinking alcohol regularly can increase your risk of (2): 

  • liver cancer
  • bowel cancer
  • breast cancer
  • mouth cancer
  • pharyngeal cancer (upper throat)
  • oesophageal cancer (food pipe)
  • laryngeal cancer (voice box)

Heavy drinking can cause cirrhosis of the liver (where damage to the liver causes scar tissues to build up) which can then lead to cancer. 

In 2010 there were 3,789 deaths from liver cancer in the UK (3). 

Recent studies have shown that even small amounts of alcohol can increase the risk of bowel cancer. An ongoing study of 500,000 people in 10 European countries has found that for every two units drunk a day, your risk of bowel cancer goes up by 8% (4). 

Drinking + smoking = greater risk of cancer

Throw cigarettes into the mix when you’re drinking and you increase the damage caused to your body’s cells. 

Smoking and drinking together greatly increases your risk of developing throat and mouth cancer than doing either on their own. That’s because when you drink alcohol it’s easier for the mouth and throat to absorb the chemicals in tobacco that cause cancer.

It’s true with oesophageal (gullet) cancer. One study found that people who drank up to five units of alcohol and smoked up to eight cigarettes per day could increase their risk of oesophageal cancer between 13 (for men) and 19 times (for women) (5).

All types of alcohol increase the risk of cancer

There are lots of debates about low levels of certain alcohol being good for us, such as red wine. However, it’s the alcohol itself that does the damage to our bodies and increases our risk of diseases such as cancer. It doesn’t matter what form alcohol comes in: beer, wine, or spirits, they all put our long-term health at risk. 

You can reduce your risk of cancer by cutting down on alcohol

The more you cut down on alcohol, the more you reduce your risk of developing cancer (6). Heavy drinking also causes: heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, pancreatitis and, of course, injuries. 

But there is some good news. Cut down on alcohol and the risk of developing cancer recedes quickly. A study has shown that the risk of mouth and oesophageal cancers drops dramatically in heavy drinkers who stop drinking (7).

Need some help? Get tips on how to cut down

If you want to stay healthy, you need to exercise and eat well too

Along with cutting down on the amount you drink, eating well and exercising are key to staying healthy. Eating at least five portions a day of fresh fruit and vegetables can have a protective effect against cancer, especially mouth, throat, stomach and lung cancers. Just 30 minutes of moderate activity a day, five days a week, can have a positive effect on your health. It isn't just good for your heart – research has shown that it can also reduce the risk of developing breast, bowel or womb cancer. Keeping active could help to prevent more than 3,000 cases of cancer every year in the UK (8). 

A few theories on why alcohol can cause cancer

Scientists don’t know exactly why alcohol increases the risk of developing cancer. But here are some of the potential reasons (9):

Acetaldehyde

When you drink, the alcohol in your body is converted into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. This can damage your DNA and stop your cells from repairing that damage, which can lead to cancer. 

Oestrogen and other hormones 

Alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones, such as oestrogen, testosterone and insulin. The risk of some forms of breast cancer, for example, can be increased when there are unusually high levels of oestrogen.

Liver cirrhosis

Cirrhosis of the liver, a result of heavy drinking, makes you more vulnerable to liver cancer.

Folate

Alcohol drinkers tend to have lower levels of folate, an important vitamin that helps our cells produce new DNA correctly. Some studies have found that cancer is more common in people with low levels of folate in their blood.

Cancer related facts

  • Every year, alcohol causes around 4% of cancer cases in the UK, about 12,500 cases (10).
  • The Million Women Study, involving 1.3 million women across the UK, showed that the relative risk of breast cancer [the chance of one group developing breast cancer, compared to another] increases by 7.1% for each 10 grams of alcohol you drink, slightly over a unit of alcohol a day (11).

Staying in control

Drinking within the lower risk guidelines will help you keep your drinking under control.  Here are three ways you can cut back:

  1. Keep track of what you’re drinking. Your liver can't tell you if you're drinking too much, but the MyDrinkaware drink tracking tool can. It can even help you cut down.
  2. Know your strength. Alcoholic drinks labels will have the abbreviation “ABV” which stands for Alcohol By Volume, or sometimes just the word “vol”. It shows the percentage of your drink that’s pure alcohol. This can vary a lot. For example, some ales are 3.5%, some stronger lagers can be as much as 6% ABV. This means that just one pint of strong lager can be more than three units of alcohol, so you need to keep your eye on what you’re drinking.
  3. Give alcohol-free days a go. If you drink regularly, your body starts to build up a tolerance to alcohol. This is one of the main reasons why it’s important to consider taking regular breaks from drinking. Test out having a break for yourself and see what positive results you notice.

Further information

Your GP can help you figure out if you should make any changes in your drinking, and offer help and advice along the way.

If you’re concerned about someone’s drinking, or your own, Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline. Call 0800 917 8282.

For advice on cancer-related issues, visit CancerHelp UK – www.cancerhelp.org.uk – the patient information website of Cancer Research UK. Their helpline operates 9am–5pm, Monday–Friday. Call 020 7061 8355 or freephone 0808 800 4040.

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Effects of drinking too much

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References

Page updated: October 2014