Alcohol and cancer

Over the long term, drinking alcohol can increase your risk of serious illnesses, such as mouth, throat and breast cancer1. Of course, not everyone who drinks will get cancer. But scientists have found that some cancers are more common in people who drink alcohol than those who , with added risk for those who consume excessive amounts of alcohol above the UK Chief Medical Officer’s recommended low risk drinking guideline of 14 units per week.

Alcohol can increase your risk of at least seven types of cancer

Drinking alcohol has been identified as a contributory factor for seven types of cancer2:

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

Find out more about how alcohol can cause liver disease

Drinking + smoking = greater risk of cancer

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

Smoking and drinking together increases your risk of developing throat and mouth cancer more than doing either on their own. A recent review of studies looked at how often oral and upper throat cancers happen in those who drink and smoke. It found that those who drank but had never smoked were around a third more likely to develop oral or upper throat cancer compared with non-drinkers. However, of those people who currently smoke or used to smoke the risk was almost three times higher compared with non-drinkers who have never smoked3

What are the links between alcohol and bowel cancer?

All types of alcohol increase the risk of cancer

Heavy drinking can also cause: heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, pancreatitis and, of course, injuries. 

In the past there has been debate about low-levels of certain alcohol being good for us, such as 'is red wine good for the heart?'. However, the most recent research has found that any protective effect of alcohol is ultimately out-weighed by the associated health risk. The small protective effect that can be found at very low drinking levels is limited to women aged 55 and over.4 In any case, it has never been thought that alcohol has any protective benefits against cancer.

Get the facts about alcohol and breast cancer

A few theories on why alcohol can cause cancer

Scientists have not identified any single mechanism that explains exactly why alcohol increases the risk of developing cancer. However they have identified a number of factors that are likely to play a role7

Acetaldehyde5

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

Oestrogen and other hormones6

Alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones in the blood, such as oestrogen, which is linked to breast cancer.

Folate and other nutrients7

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 blood8.

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.

According to the CMO guidelines8, just 30 minutes of moderate activity a day, five days a week, can have a positive effect on your health. As well as being good for your heart, research has shown that it can also reduce the risk of developing breast, bowel or womb cancer. Keeping with the Chief Medical Office’s guidelines for physical activity each week could help to prevent more than 3,400 cases of cancer every year in the UK9.

Find out more about the short and long term health effects of alcohol

Staying in control of your drinking

You can keep your risk low by staying within the recommended low risk drinking guidance. Here are three ways you can cut back:

  1. Find out how your drinking compares. Use the DrinkCompare tool to assess your drinking and see what having a little less could do for you.
  2. Keep track of what you’re drinking. Think you might be drinking too much? The free Drinkaware app can tell you. It can even help you cut down.
  3. 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 an eye on what you’re drinking.
  4. Have several drink-free days a week. If you want to cut down, a great way is to have several drink-free days a week. Test out having a break for yourself and see what positive results you. 

Ready to cut down? Get some more tips here

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 0300 123 1110.

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

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If you would like to give us feedback about the information on this webpage, or any others on this website, please do so by emailing your comments to contact@drinkaware.co.uk 

Last reviewed: 17 November 2017

Next review due: 17 November 2020

References

(1) V. Bagnardi, M. et al. (2012)Light alcohol drinking and cancer: a meta-analysis. Annals of Oncology  Available at: https://academic.oup.com/annonc/article/24/2/301/223860
(2) Parkin, D. M., Boyd, L. & Walker, L. C. (2011). Table 2, 16. The fraction of cancer attributable to lifestyle and environmental factors in the UK in 2010: Summary and conclusions. British Journal of Cancer, 105, S77-S81. Last reviewed: 23/02/2015 Available at: 
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252065/ 
(3) Turati, F. et al. . (2013). A Meta-analysis of Alcohol Drinking and Oral and Pharyngeal Cancers: Results from Subgroup Analyses. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 48, 107-118. Last reviewed 23/02/2016 
Available at: http://alcalc.oxfordjournals.org/content/48/1/107.long

(4) Holmes J, Angus C, Buykx P, Ally A, Stone T, Meier P, Brennan A (2016) 'Mortality and morbidity risks from alcohol consumption in the UK: Analyses using the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model (v.2.7) to inform the UK Chief Medical Officers' review of the UK lower risk drinking guidelines', Sheffield: ScHARR, University of Sheffield

(5) Ferrari et al (2007), ‘Lifetime and baseline alcohol intake and risk of colon and rectal cancers in the European prospective investigation into cancer and nutrition (EPIC)’, International Journal of Cancer. 121(9): 2065-2072. Available at:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ijc.22966/pdf

(6) Purohit, V., Khalsa, J.and Serrano, J. (2005) Mechanisms of alcohol-associated cancers: introduction and summary of the symposium. Alcohol. 35(3): 155-160. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16054976

(7) Duthie, S. J. (1999) Folic acid deficiency and cancer: mechanisms of DNA instability. British Medical Bulletin. 55(3): 578-592. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10746348

(8) Department of Health. (2011) UK physical activity guidelines. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-physical-activity-guidelines

(9) Parkin, D. M. (2011) 9. Cancers attributable to inadequate physical exercise in the UK in 2010. British Journal of Cancer. 105(Suppl 2): S38-S41. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252067/