Quitting Alcohol Use Can Reduce Cancer Risk

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed:

Your risk for alcohol-related cancers will decrease over time if you stop drinking. Quitting improves your health.

Many people know heavy alcohol use can cause health problems like cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Many don’t know that alcohol can also increase your risk of cancer. Alcohol use increases your risk of many 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 you drink over time. It does not matter what you drink, whether it be beer, wine, or liquor (distilled spirits).

The risk varies for each type of cancer. It depends on how much you drink and if you are also using tobacco. Heavy drinkers can have as much as 10-15 times higher risk of these cancers than those who do not drink. Risk begins to increase 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.

Smoking cigarettes and other tobacco product use puts you at higher risk for cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, and esophagus. Tobacco and alcohol use together cause many more of these cancers than either cause on their own.

If you are a moderate to heavy drinker, you can decrease your risk of cancers associated with alcohol by cutting down alcohol use or stopping. It may 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 healthcare provider can help you create a plan if you decide to quit drinking 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 does decrease, though it does not ever reach that of a never drinker. 

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. June 24, 2013.

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 oncology46(7), 497-503.

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