Among researchers and scientists, there is a strong consensus drinking alcohol can raise your risk for cancer. However, the less alcohol you drink, the lower the risk.
Yes, alcohol abuse can raise your risk for cancer. Multiple studies have found associations between drinking alcohol and cancer. Although many people are aware of risk factors for cancer, like sun exposure or smoking, few consider America’s most popular substance may put you at risk for cancer. According to a recent survey, only one in three people see drinking as a risk factor for cancer. It’s understood the more a person drinks, the higher the risk for cancer.
Understanding Alcohol Abuse And The Risk For Cancer
Many people associate alcohol abuse with addiction, drunk driving, and other physical, social, or mental health problems. However, many people may not realize alcohol abuse also increases the risk for cancer.
Moderate drinking, which is defined as one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men, contributes to the risk. The risk for heavy drinkers, which is defined as eight or more drinks a week for women and fifteen or more a week for men, is substantially higher when compared to moderate drinkers.
Among the scientific community, there is a strong consensus that alcohol abuse raises the risk for cancer. Consuming alcohol has shown to be a human carcinogen, which is defined as any substance that causes cancer. Data suggests around 3.5% of all cancer deaths in the U.S. are related to alcohol.
Cancers Associated With Alcohol Abuse
Research has found distinct patterns regarding alcohol abuse and certain types of cancers. The following cancers have been linked to alcohol use:
Mouth, Throat, And Voice Box Cancer
Alcohol consumption increases the risk for cancers of the head and neck. This includes mouth (oral cavity) cancer, throat (pharynx) cancer, and voice box (larynx) cancer. Those who drink around 3.5 or more drinks a day have a 2-3x greater risk for these cancers than those who don’t drink. The risk of these cancers is further increased when a person drinks alcohol and smokes cigarettes or tobacco.
Drinking alcohol increases the risk of a certain esophageal cancer called esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. The alcohol-related risk for this cancer is increased if a person inherited a deficiency in an enzyme (a protein that speeds up chemical reactions in the body) that metabolizes, or breaks down, alcohol.
Alcohol abuse is often the primary cause of liver cancer, also called hepatocellular carcinoma. Heavy use of alcohol on a regular basis can lead to inflammation and scarring of the liver, causing damage and potentially cancer.
Over 100 studies have examined alcohol and the risk for breast cancer. Time and time again, these studies have found drinking increases the risk. Women who drink more than three drinks a day have a higher risk for breast cancer than women who don’t drink. Even a small amount of alcohol increases the risk. Reducing the amount of alcohol a woman drinks can substantially lower the risk for breast cancer.
Colon And Rectum Cancer
Drinking alcohol slightly increases the risk for rectal and colon cancers. Studies show that people who regularly drink more than 3.5 alcoholic beverages per day have a greater risk for colorectal cancers than nondrinkers. The risk for colon and rectum cancer is modestly increased for every drink a person consumes.
Other studies have shown alcohol use may increase the risk for various cancers. Studies show mixed results and there is no definitive conclusion for these cancers. However, alcohol abuse may also increase the risk for cancers of the:
The risk for kidney cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), studies show, may actually decrease when alcohol is consumed. It’s not yet understood why this occurs.
How Does Alcohol Raise Your Risk For Cancer?
The exact process or mechanism for how alcohol increases the risk for cancer isn’t entirely understood. However, researchers have identified multiple reasons why alcohol may raise the risk, including:
- Damage to body tissues: Once consumed, alcohol is broken down, or metabolized, into a chemical called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a toxic chemical and likely human carcinogen. This chemical damages DNA and can prevent cells from repairing themselves, marking the first step towards cancer.
- Increases effects of harmful chemicals: Drinking alcohol can help harmful chemicals, like tobacco smoke, enter cells in the digestive tract. This may explain why mouth and throat cancers are more likely for those who drink and smoke compared to those who only drink or only smoke.
- Impaired absorption of nutrients: Alcohol impairs the body’s ability to absorb and break down some nutrients that are associated with the risk for cancer. These nutrients may include vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, carotenoids, and vitamin B complex, which includes an essential nutrient called folate that helps cells in the body stay healthy.
- Increases estrogen levels: Alcohol increases blood levels of estrogen, a hormone related to the growth and development of breast tissue, which increases the risk for breast cancer.
- Body weight: For some people, heavy drinking can lead to weight gain. Obesity has shown to raise a person’s risk for various types of cancer.
Does The Type Of Alcohol Make A Difference?
It’s ethanol, or pure alcohol, that contributes to an increased risk for cancer. This is found in liquor, beer, wine, and other drinks. Alcoholic drinks contain different amounts of pure alcohol, but the standard drink in the U.S. is about 14 grams, or 0.6 ounces, of pure alcohol. This amount of pure alcohol is usually found in:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 8 ounces of malt liquor
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of liquor (a “shot”)
It’s the amount of alcohol a person drinks overtime that raises the risk for cancer, not the type of drink. Most of the evidence associated with drinking and cancer risks shows it’s ethanol, or pure alcohol, that makes the difference, not other substances found in various alcoholic drinks.
Treatment For Alcohol Abuse
Although it may take years to reduce the risk of cancer caused by alcohol use, it’s important to reach out for help if someone is suffering from an alcohol problem. Heavy drinking over long periods of time can cause damage to organs such as the liver, brain, and pancreas, and may also lead to high blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
An alcohol use disorder, or the medical diagnosis for a drinking problem, is typically treated with a combination of medication and behavioral therapy. Medications can be used to alleviate uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal and reduce cravings for alcohol. Therapy is effective for changing thinking and attitudes towards alcohol and developing coping skills to avoid future relapse. While you still may be exposed to cancer risks, treating an alcohol problem promotes health and well-being for a quality life worth living.
For more information be sure to check out these additional resources from AlcoholTreatment.net: