Alcohol Use and Cancer Risk

Author: Christina Bach, MBE, LCSW, OSW-C
Last Reviewed: December 17, 2023

Heavy alcohol use can cause health problems such as cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Alcohol can also increase your risk of cancer. Alcohol use has been linked to an increased risk of cancer 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 you drink over time. The type of alcohol, whether it is beer, wine, or liquor (distilled spirits), does not matter.

Heavy drinkers have a higher risk of these cancers than those who do not drink. The American Cancer Society suggests only two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. A drink is defined as:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer.
  • 5 ounces of wine.
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.

Higher breast cancer risk has been linked to just a few drinks a week, so the risk is not limited to heavy drinking. For cancer prevention, The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends not to drink any alcohol.

Smoking cigarettes or using other tobacco products along with alcohol puts you at an even higher risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, and esophagus. Doing both causes more damage than either does on its own.

If you are a moderate to heavy drinker, you can decrease your risk of cancer by cutting down alcohol use or stopping. It can be hard at first to deal with alcohol withdrawal symptoms and may be even harder to stop drinking entirely, but it will improve your health. Your provider can help you with a plan to manage the symptoms of withdrawal, especially if you are a heavy drinker. After 15-20 years of being alcohol-free, your risk of esophageal or head and neck cancer decreases.

If you have questions about your level of alcohol intake, talk to your healthcare provider. Heavy alcohol use leads to cancer risk as well as many other health issues and should be avoided.

Resources for More Information

References

Cao, Y., & Giovannucci, E. L. (2016, August). Alcohol as a risk factor for cancer. In Seminars in oncology nursing (Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 325-331). WB Saunders.

Hashibe M, Brennan P, Chuang SC, et al. Interaction between tobacco and alcohol use and the risk of head and neck cancer: pooled analysis in the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology Consortium. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention 2009;18(2):541-550.

National Cancer Institute: Alcohol and Cancer Risk. 2021.

WCRF/AICR Continuous Update Project Database and Findings. AICR.

Theodoratou, E., Timofeeva, M., Li, X., Meng, X., & Ioannidis, J. P. (2017). Nature, nurture, and cancer risks: genetic and nutritional contributions to cancer. Annual review of nutrition,37, 293-320.

Tramacere, I., Negri, E., Bagnardi, V., Garavello, W., Rota, M., Scotti, L., ... & La Vecchia, C. (2010). A meta-analysis of alcohol drinking and oral and pharyngeal cancers. Part 1: overall results and dose-risk relation. Oral oncology, 46(7), 497-503.

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