Quitting Alcohol Use Can Reduce Cancer Risk

OncoLink Team
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: January 11, 2018

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).

The risk varies for each type of cancer and is influenced by how much you are drinking and if you are also using tobacco. Heavy drinkers can have as much as a 10-15 times higher risk of developing 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.

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. Tobacco and alcohol work together to cause many more of these cancers than either can cause on their own.

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 does decrease, though it does not ever reach that of a never drinker. You should talk to and get help from your healthcare provider if you decide to quit drinking in order to better manage the symptoms of withdrawal, particularly if you are a heavy 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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