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Alcohol and Cancer: What Are the Risks?

Many of us like to drink alcohol. We celebrate with it, unwind with it, and enjoy it with meals. We may even sip some wine to help protect our heart.

It’s possible that moderate alcohol consumption may have some health benefits. But in general, those benefits, unfortunately, don’t extend to cancer. Drinking, in fact, raises the risk of developing several types of cancer. Does that mean you should never drink? The answer to that question is different for everyone. But the following information may help you decide what is best for you.

The link between alcohol and cancer

There is no doubt: “Alcohol is a cause of cancer,” said Rishi Jain, MD, MS, DABOM, a medical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “An estimated 5% of all cancers worldwide are thought to be related to alcohol intake.”

Alcohol doesn’t raise the risk of all cancers. But drinking is known to increase the chances of developing these types of cancer:

  • Mouth and throat
  • Voice box (larynx)
  • Esophagus
  • Colon and rectum
  • Liver
  • Breast (in women)

Exactly how alcohol affects cancer risk is still being studied.

“The precise mechanisms linking cancer and alcohol aren’t completely understood, but there are some hypotheses,” Jain said. Among them:

  • The body breaks alcohol down into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is known to damage DNA, Jain said. Once DNA is damaged, a cell can start to grow out of control and form a cancerous tumor.
  • Drinking alcohol increases blood levels of the hormone estrogen, which is linked to the risk of developing some types of breast cancer.
  • Alcohol negatively affects how well the body can break down and absorb a variety of nutrients that may be associated with cancer risk, including carotenoids and vitamins A, C, D, and E.

Specific cancers may be tied to alcohol in unique ways. For example, people who drink tend to have lower amounts of folate in their diets, Jain said. That decrease has been linked to colon cancer. And for cancers of the head and neck, drinking or smoking can increase the risk. But combining those two behaviors can increase cancer risk substantially—more than the sum of the two parts.

Because of alcohol’s ties with cancer, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends not drinking at all. But according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate alcohol consumption—for people who choose to drink—is OK. That means one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men.

Weigh the overall risks for yourself

Beyond the risk for developing cancer, there are other factors, such as these, to consider when debating the pros and cons of alcohol:

  • Studies have found that moderate alcohol consumption can raise levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol in the blood and lower the risk of diabetes.
  • Excessive drinking can cause liver damage, high blood pressure, pancreatitis, psychological disorders, and cardiomyopathy—a heart condition that can lead to heart failure.
  • About 10% of people who use alcohol excessively may have a severe alcohol use disorder. Signs of this chronic disease include the inability to limit drinking and continuing to drink despite personal or professional problems.

Drinking is a personal decision. It’s important to make an informed choice and to consider how alcohol may affect your health—including your risk of cancer.