Alcohol Use and Cancer Risk

OncoLink Team
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: March 23, 2012

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Many people are aware that heavy alcohol use can cause health problems such as cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, but many are not aware that alcohol can also increase a your of developing cancer. Alcohol use has been linked to an increased risk of several types of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), esophagus (swallowing tube), liver, breast (in women), colon and rectum. The risk for each of these cancers increases with the amount of alcohol consumed over time, regardless of the type of drink; beer, wine, or liquor (distilled spirits).

Heavy drinkers have 10-15 times higher risk of developing these cancers than those who do not drink. However, the overall risk increases after just 1 drink a day for women or 2 for men. (A drink is defined as 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.) Higher breast cancer risk has been associated with just a few drinks a week, so the risk is not limited to heavy drinking.

Those who also smoke cigarettes, or use other tobacco products, are at an even higher risk, particularly for cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, and esophagus. The degree of increased risk is quite substantial. For comparison, those who both smoke and drink have a 15 times greater risk of developing mouth cancer than people who do not use alcohol or tobacco, whereas people who use alcohol, but not tobacco, are 6 times more likely to develop this cancer.

If you are a moderate to heavy drinker, you can decrease your risk of cancers associated with alcohol by significantly cutting down alcohol use or stopping all together. It may be difficult at first to deal with alcohol withdraw symptoms and may be even harder to stop drinking entirely, but it is worth it to reap the benefits of improving your heath. After 15-20 years of being alcohol free, your risk of developing esophageal or head and neck cancer is almost equal to that of someone who never drank. You should talk to and get help from your healthcare provider if you have decided to quit drinking in order to better manage the symptoms of withdrawal, particularly if you are a heavy drinker.

There are reports that low to moderate alcohol consumption (1- 2 drinks/day for a man, 1 drink a day for a woman) may lower one's risk of heart and cardiovascular disease. The potential benefits of low-moderate alcohol consumption should be weighed against other possible health risks for each individual person. If you have questions about the safety of your level of alcohol intake, talk to your physician or other healthcare provider. Under any circumstances, heavy alcohol use contributes to cancer risk as well as many other health issues, and should be avoided.

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