Quitting Alcohol Use Can Reduce Cancer Risk

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

As you will learn here, your risk for alcohol related cancers will decrease over time if you stop drinking. Quitting is an important step in improving your health.

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.

Giving up alcohol altogether, or significantly cutting down, can reduce your cancer risk over time. Though giving up alcohol can be physically and psychologically difficult, it is worth it to reap the benefits of improving your heath. Your cancer risk decreases slowly as time without alcohol exposure passes. After 15-20 years of being alcohol free, your risk of developing esophageal or head and neck cancers is almost equal to that of someone who never drank.

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