Alcohol and cancer
Alcohol increases your risk of developing at least seven types of cancer
Drinking alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer, including breast, bowel, mouth and throat cancers.1
Not everyone who drinks alcohol will get cancer, but scientists have found that several cancers, including the seven listed on this page, are caused by drinking alcohol - with the risk increasing the more you drink.
The risk of developing these types of cancer starts to increase even at low levels of drinking. So the less you drink, the more you reduce your risk.
It’s estimated that between 3-4 out of every 100 cases of cancer in the UK are caused by alcohol. That’s somewhere between 11,500 – 12,500 new cases every year.2
Drinking alcohol has been identified as something that can cause seven types of cancer:3
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.
If you drink alcohol and you’re a smoker too, this increases your risk of developing throat, mouth, food pipe and bowel cancers, more than doing either on their own.
People who use both alcohol and tobacco have a five-fold increased risk of developing cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box and food pipe compared to people who use either alcohol or tobacco alone. For heavy users, the risk is up to 30 times higher.4
There are many ways that alcohol can cause cancer, including:
When you drink, the alcohol in your body is converted into a chemical called acetaldehyde, which is toxic when it gets inside the body. 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.
Although the main area your body processes (or ‘metabolises’) alcohol is the liver, the cells in your mouth (and even the naturally occurring bacteria in your mouth) can metabolise alcohol, leading to an accumulation of acetaldehyde.
Changes in hormones6
Alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones in the body, such as oestrogen, which is linked to breast cancer.
Changes to how your cells protect themselves7
Alcohol can affect the cells in various parts of the body, such as in the mouth and throat, making it easier for other carcinogens (substances that cause cancer) to be absorbed into the body.8
Alcohol can also reduce levels of one of your body’s natural defences - retinoic acid – which is important for protecting cells against cancer.9
If you choose to drink, to keep health risks from alcohol low it's safest for both men and women to drink no more than 14 units a week, spread over three or more days with several drink-free days, and no bingeing.
To keep your risk of cancer low, it’s also important not to smoke, to make sure you are getting enough exercise (aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate activity a day, five days a week), maintain a healthy weight, eat a balanced diet and protect yourself from the sun.10
However, for cancers, we know that drinking even at lower levels (for example, below 14 units per week) can increase your risk. Put simply, this means the less you drink the lower your cancer risk from alcohol.
If you choose to drink, you can keep your risk low by drinking less than the recommended UK low risk drinking guidelines. Here are four ways you can cut back
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 – choose a lower percentage, and there will be less alcohol in the same sized drink.
If you’re undergoing treatment for cancer, it’s possible that drinking alcohol could interfere with this treatment.11 You should speak to the health professional who is providing your treatment for further advice or information.
For advice on cancer-related issues, Cancer Research UK offer patient information on their website, or you can contact their nurse helpline between 9am–5pm, Monday–Friday using freephone 0808 800 4040, or send a question online.
If you’re worried about your drinking, get in touch with your local GP surgery, who will be able to help.
You can also search for alcohol support services in your area using the below links:
If you’re simply looking to speak to someone on the phone or chat online for more advice on your own or someone else’s drinking, get in touch with Drinkchat or Drinkline.
Drinkchat is a free online chat service with trained advisors offering confidential advice. The service is available from 9am-2pm on weekdays.
Drinkline is a free, confidential helpline available from 9am – 8pm on weekdays, and 11am – 4pm at the weekend. Call 0300 123 1110.
If you need help with a drinking problem you can phone the national Alcoholics Anonymous helpline on 0800 917 7650 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find out more information on their website.
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 Gapstur et al., 2021, Alcohol and Cancer: Existing Knowledge and Evidence Gaps Across the Cancer Continuum. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2021 Nov 2; cebp.0934.2021. doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-21-0934
 Brown, K.F., Rumgay, H., Dunlop, C., Ryan, M., Quartly, F., Cox, A., Deas, A., Elliss-Brookes, L., Gavin, A., Hounsome, L. and Huws, D. (2018). The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015. British Journal of Cancer, 118(8), 1130.
 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.
 Wang, X.-D., Liu, C., Chung, J., Stickel, F., Seitz, H. K., & Russell, R. M. (1998). Chronic alcohol intake reduces retinoic acid concentration and enhances AP-1 (c-Jun and c-Fos) expression in rat liver. Hepatology, 28(3), 744–750.
Last Reviewed: 27th January 2022
Next Review due: 27th January 2025