Does Alcohol Cause Cancer?

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), alcohol is the most common term used to describe ethyl alcohol or ethanol.

Manufacturers add this chemical to beer, hard liquor, malt liquor, wine, and distilled spirits to produce a potentially intoxicating effect for people who drink one of these beverages. Alcohol is also in some over-the-counter products such as cough syrup and mouthwash. However, the amount is typically minimal and not enough for people to become drunk from the contents.

The typical alcoholic beverage contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol, which is the same as 14 grams. A 12-ounce can of beer and a 1.5-ounce shot of hard liquor contain roughly the same amount of alcohol by volume. The NIH recommends that women consume no more than one alcoholic drink per day while men should limit themselves to two drinks. It considers four or more daily drinks for women and eight or more daily drinks for men to be heavy drinking. Unfortunately, heavy drinking is associated with an increased cancer risk.

Heavy Drinking and the Link to Cancer

After studying the issue approximately 10 years ago, the NIH has concluded that regularly drinking alcohol can increase the likelihood that a person will develop some type of cancer. That is because alcohol is a carcinogen. The more you drink and the longer you keep up the habit, the greater your risk becomes. This is as true for light drinkers and binge drinkers as it is for heavy drinkers. The following types of cancers have a strong link to heavy or prolonged drinking:

  • Breast: Your chances of developing breast cancer are 1.3 to 1.6 times higher depending on the amount you normally consume. This drops to around 1.1 percent if you have never smoked and usually drink in moderation.
  • Colorectal: Drinking a moderate to heavy amount of alcohol can increase the odds of you developing cancer of the rectum or colon by 1.2 to 1.5 percent.
  • Esophageal: Your esophagus is an organ located in the upper digestive tract. Its main duty is to link the throat and stomach. It is approximately eight inches long and helps to carry food to different areas of your body. If you have ever felt like you have food stuck in your throat or you swallowed wrong, the problem likely originated in your esophagus. The risk of developing this type of cancer is 1.3 to five times higher if you drink. Additionally, you have an extremely high likelihood of developing esophageal cancer if you have an enzyme deficiency.
  • Head and neck: This type of cancer is closely associated with moderate to heavy drinking. Tumors can appear in the voice box, throat, or oral cavity except for the lips. The risk increases five-fold for heavy drinkers when it comes to cancer of the pharynx or oral cavity. It is 2.6 times more likely you will develop cancer of the larynx if you drink heavily or regularly.
  • Liver: Heavy alcohol use doubles the risk of two common types of liver cancer. These include hepatocellular carcinoma and intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma.

How Alcohol Affects the Body and Increases the Risk of Cancer

When ethanol in alcoholic drinks breaks down, it transforms into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. As a human carcinogen, acetaldehyde can damage proteins and DNA, which is the genetic material responsible for creating genes. Some other common effects of alcohol include:

  • Increases the amount of estrogen present in the blood, a sex chemical that can increase the risk of breast cancer.
  • Has a negative impact on the body’s ability to break down and absorb several types of vitamins that can help guard against cancer. The most common ones include Vitamin A, C, D, E, and Vitamin B Complex.
  • Alcohol affects the performance of chemically reactive molecules that require oxygen. This can damage DNA, lipids, and proteins throughout the body in a process known as oxidation.

In addition, the fermentation and production process of alcoholic beverages can introduce carcinogens such as asbestos fibers, hydrocarbons, nitrosamines, and phenols.

Drinking Alcohol While Smoking Tobacco Increases Cancer Risk Even More

If you drink and smoke regularly, your risk of developing cancer is greater than if you engaged in either activity independently or did not drink or smoke at all. Your risk of developing cancer of the esophagus, larynx, oral cavity, or pharynx is especially high when you drink and smoke at the same time.
If you are struggling to quit smoking, speak to your doctor at UHC about smoking cessation resources. We also encourage you to speak to your doctor about alcohol addiction services if you find that you cannot give up alcohol despite it causing many consequences in your life.

Your Partner in Healthy Living

While it is not possible to control every possible cancer risk, the decision of whether to drink alcohol is one that is directly within your control. We invite you to check out our Health Library to find topics on alcohol, nutrition, cancer, and many others. When you are ready to make changes to your lifestyle, your primary doctor will be there to support you with resources that point you toward better health.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing related symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.