Does drinking alcohol increase your chances of developing cancer?

Published: 16 Oct 2017

Most of us enjoy an alcoholic drink when we’re socializing with friends, or at the end of a busy week, but could our favorite tipple be doing more harm than we realize?

In addition to generating a bad hangover after over-indulging the night before, some people worry that drinking alcohol could increase their chances of developing more serious medical conditions, such as cancer. But is there any truth in these concerns?

Let’s look at the research to find out whether alcohol consumption can cause cancer

Does alcohol damage the body?

The answer to this, as most of us know, is yes it can.

Unlike food, alcohol doesn’t need to be digested, so it can very quickly make its way into our bloodstream. Around 20% of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach, with the remaining 80% absorbed through the small intestine, and then small vessels within these organs carry it through to our blood.

While this can generate a pleasurable sensation, alcohol is a toxin, and several parts of the body must work hard to break down the alcohol in order to protect our vital organs.

It is the organs involved in the consumption and processing of alcohol that are at the greatest risk of developing cancer from regular alcohol overindulgence. 

Which cancers are most often linked with alcohol consumption? 

Scientific research has shown links between excessive alcohol consumption and certain types of cancer: 

Head and neck cancer – studies have shown that people who drink 3.5+ units of alcohol per day are 2-3 times more likely to develop cancer in parts of the head and neck that come into contact with alcohol during consumption. These organs can include the throat, oral cavity and esophagus.
Liver cancer – alcohol is broken down and metabolized by an enzyme in the liver called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). As a result of the strain put on this organ by overindulgence, regular drinkers are at a greater risk of developing liver cancer.

Breast cancer – some studies have shown that women who drink at least 3 units of alcohol per day are 1.5 times more likely to develop breast cancer than a non-drinker.

Can cutting back on alcohol reduce my cancer risk? 

As the examples we have shared demonstrate, there is a clear scientific link between serious alcohol consumption and certain types of cancer.

If you are concerned about your chances of getting cancer and you regularly drink to excess, it is far better to change your lifestyle now than bury your head in the sand and presume that you will be the person who defies the odds.

To personally assess whether your alcohol consumption could be increasing your cancer risk, monitor your drinking habits over the next week or two. Be honest about the frequency and volume of your alcohol consumption – is it time you looked at cutting back?

Although precise recommendations vary by country – on average most guidelines do not recommend drinking more than 7 alcoholic drinks per week (10 to 14 units).  Plus, you should spread consumption over the entire week – not save them all up for the weekend!

Lowering your alcohol intake will have other positive health benefits in addition to reducing your risk of contracting certain types of cancer, such as giving you clearer skin, improving your sleep patterns and increasing your energy levels.  Furthermore, people who are intoxicated are far more likely to sustain an injury!

I’ve already been diagnosed with cancer; should I stop drinking alcohol?

If you have already been diagnosed with cancer that could be linked to your alcohol consumption, your doctor may have already told you to stop drinking because the type of cancer you have affects the organs that process alcohol in your body.
If your type of cancer was not caused by drinking, most doctors will advise you to drink little or no alcohol during treatments such as chemotherapy, depending on the drugs you have been prescribed. If you have not been given any specific instructions yet, it is vital that you have a conversation with your doctor before consuming alcohol.

How can I get help with my drinking habits? 

Whether you’re fighting cancer or not, if you’re having trouble cutting down or giving up alcohol, speak to your doctor for information and guidance on coping strategies. 
The important thing to know is that there are a number of support options available, which can help you to get control of your drinking habits or even cut out alcohol altogether.