Alcohol use and cancer
There is an incredibly strong link between alcohol use and cancer. Alcohol use accounts for about 4% of all deaths from cancer in the US. It accounts for about 6% of all cancers.
Though this may seem like a small amount, it is completely preventable. In fact, it is one of the most profound preventable risk factors for cancer, beaten only by smoking and obesity. Quitting drinking, or at least cutting down on alcohol consumption, really can help keep you safe in the long run.
Alcohol use and types of cancer
Excessive alcohol use is a proven major risk factor for mouth, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), oesophageal, liver, colon, rectum, and breast cancer. It is also likely connected to an increased risk of stomach cancer and may increase your overall chances of developing all types of cancer.
The worse your alcohol use (the more you drink), the greater the cancer risk it presents. However, any amount can increase your risk from some types of cancer, notably breast cancer.
Alcohol use also often goes hand in hand with smoking. Drinking and smoking is a gestalt phenomenon – the risk it presents is greater than the sum of its parts. Abusing alcohol whilst smoking will increase your risk by far more than the risk from either smoking or drinking in isolation. This is particularly true for mouth, throat, voice box, and oesophageal cancers.
Liver cancer is of particular concern to long-term alcohol use: long term moderate to heavy drinkers are far more likely to develop it. This is because alcohol damages the liver. It leads to scarring and inflammation, which in turn raises the risk of cancer from free radical damage.
Men are far likelier to suffer colon and rectum cancer as a result of drinking, according to the data. However, there is still a strong link for both men and women.
Alcohol use, even in small amounts, has been linked with a much-increased risk of breast cancer for women. This may be because it raises oestrogen levels in the body.
How does alcohol use increase cancer risk?
As with many branches of medical science, we don’t completely understand why alcohol use correlates with cancer risk. However, we know that it does. We know the correlation, even if we have yet to fully figure out its causes.
There likely isn’t one main reason for the correlation, but rather several interlinking, overlapping reasons. Researchers have theorised them, with evidence to back each one.
Body tissue damage
Alcohol is an irritant. This is especially the case in the mouth and throat, where its caustic nature is often most felt. When cells are damaged by irritants like this, they attempt to repair themselves. In doing so, your DNA can warp and change. It can mutate, which is a likely precursor to cancer.
Our bodies can convert alcohol into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde can damage the DNA inside cells. Researchers have proven this in animal studies.
Alcohol consumption can also cause oxidative stress. It can cause your body’s cells to create reactive oxygen species – these are simply chemically reactive molecules that contain oxygen. These molecules can damage the insides of cells, which will further the risk of mutation and cancer development from alcohol use.
As above, alcohol can also damage the liver, bringing about cirrhosis – scarring and inflammation. As with the cells elsewhere in your body, those in your liver will attempt to repair this damage. This can lead to DNA mutation, which in turn can lead to the development of cancer.
Interactions with other chemicals
Alcohol may also have negative effects combined with other harmful chemicals. For instance, it may help the toxins contains in tobacco smoke to more easily enter the cells lining the digestive tract. Hence, most likely, the gestalt nature of alcohol and tobacco.
It may also impair your body’s ability to rid itself of certain harmful chemicals. Your body has several natural detoxification processes to help flush out anything unwanted or harmful. When this is slowed down and inhibited, they stick around. This can potentially cause a great deal of damage.
Impairments to nutrient absorption
Alcohol may also stop your body from effectively absorbing certain nutrients. The vitamin folate is particularly key here. Alcohol impairs its uptake, especially when consumed in large amounts and/or over a long period of time. This is an issue, as folate is crucial for cellular health. Low folate levels cause by alcohol use may lead to an increased risk from some cancers as cells are unable to properly repair and regenerate.
Endocrinal (or hormonal) concerns
Alcohol can raise oestrogen levels and diminish testosterone levels.
Oestrogen is key in breast tissue’s healthy growth and development. Too much of it may increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
Low levels of testosterone can be linked with multiple health concerns. Amongst these may be an increased risk from prostate and testicular cancer.
Changes to body composition
Excess body fat can be ruinous to your health. Body composition has an incredibly profound effect both on your overall health. Alcohol use can tip your hormonal levels out of balance, as we have seen, which can lead to gains in body fat and a higher risk of cancer.and on your risk of developing cancer.
Unfortunately, alcohol and excess bodyweight, or even obesity, all too often come hand in hand.
There are a few mechanisms for this. Firstly, alcohol is a form of sugar. An alcoholic drink will therefore be loaded with sugar by its very nature. This sugar can easily contribute to weight gain. Secondly, lifestyle factors associated with excessive drinking can come into play. Overeating whilst intoxicated is common. Your ability to live an active lifestyle will be impaired.
Types of alcohol – does your tipple of choice change things?
Generally speaking, the type of alcohol you drink won’t make too much of a difference on your likelihood of developing cancer. All alcoholic drinks contain ethanol. Though they will contain different percentages of ethanol, from 5% in beer, to around 12% in wine, to 40%+ in most spirits, a standard serving of any drink will give you about the same amount – typically half an ounce.
This means that a pint of beer will give you about the same volume of ethanol as a glass of wine or a finger of whiskey.
Frequency, volume, and longevity of consumption will be more important over time than the type of drink you have. Whether you typically drink a bottle of wine per night or use a few glasses of high strength alcohol to relax, you will be putting yourself in the same amount of danger of cancer.
What do the professionals recommend?
The American Cancer Society is a great resource, here. They have published up-to-date guidelines for diet and physical activity, alcohol use and for cancer prevention.
According to these guidelines, it is best to abstain from alcohol. Those who do drink should limit intake to a maximum of two drinks per day – that’s two pints of beer, two glasses of wine, or two shots of spirit. This falls to one drink per day for women and men with lower body masses.
There is no clear link between drinking and recurrence of cancer. The current theory is that drinking during treatment or remission is a bad idea, as it could increase the risk of cancer returning, but this isn’t yet known for sure.
However, alcohol use can increase the risk of those with cancer developing a new type of cancer.
Alcohol is best avoided during and after cancer treatment. It can aggravate side effects associated with treatments. It can also interact with some drugs, increasing the risk of harmful side effects, and decreasing their efficacy.
Decrease your risk of cancer and quit alcohol
It is estimated that 1 in every 2 of us will have cancer at some point in our lives. Whilst many of these cancers will be curable, it is prudent to try and reduce your risk as much as possible.
If you are drinking heavily and frequently and think it may be time to seek help for alcohol, we have an abundance of support and resources here for you to access. You can join our online community where you can access support and meetings, learn more about alcohol from our Knowledge Hub and tap into our professionals who run classes within our Wellness Hub.
If alcohol use and cancer is of concern to you, everything you need to support you in stopping, is right here at your fingertips.
- Cancer Research UK - https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/alcohol-and-cancer
- The American Society of Cancer - https://www.cancer.org/healthy/cancer-causes/diet-physical-activity/alcohol-use-and-cancer.html