Alcohol Is Linked to Cancer

By Temma Ehrenfeld  @temmaehrenfeld
November 18, 2016

If cancer runs in your family, be especially careful not to over-imbibe. 

Many cancers are mysterious — and can’t be linked to any particular behavior. Some behavior, like smoking cigarettes, is obviously risky. Drinking too much alcohol is associated with a long list of risks, from accidents to liver damage. It also may up your chances of a cancer, especially if you down more than four drinks a day. If you already have a worrisome family history or other health problems, you might think twice before consuming even one or two drinks daily. You can still drink moderately — but might stick to weekends and the occasional weeknight dinner. 

According to a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) combined analysis of 200 studies, the tightest ties between alcohol and cancer are to cancers related to the mouth and throat. The fact that many drinkers also smoke cigarettes make the risks greater. And your risk of stomach, colon, rectum, liver, breast, and ovarian cancer all seem to be higher if you drink alcohol, even if you stick to 25 grams of alcohol, or about two drinks a day. In fact, current estimates suggest that cancers associated with alcohol cause nearly 6 percent of all cancer deaths worldwide. 

“Wait,” you may be thinking, “Isn’t red wine good for you?” Women who drink one glass of red wine every day, and men who drink two, may get some protection against heart disease, diabetes, and obesity — but probably not cancer


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Breast cancer

Drinking may slightly increase the chance of breast cancer both before and after menopause. This is even true of red wine. One study recruited more than 335,000 women, ages 35 to 70, from 10 European countries, following the group for 11 years, on average. Drinking five to 15 grams of alcohol a day increased their breast cancer risk nearly 6 percent, including some of the more deadly kinds of tumors. The risk was stronger among women who started drinking before their first pregnancy — a good reason not to overdo it in college or your fun-loving twenties. Drinking more than six grams of alcohol a day if you’ve already had breast cancer can increase the chance of a recurrence in women past menopause, other evidence suggests. 

Colorectal cancer

Imbibing more than one drink a day increases your chances of this colon cancer, and the more you drink, the greater your risk, according to a meta-analysis of 61 studies.

Pancreatic cancer

You don’t want to get pancreatic cancer, since you may well die within months of diagnosis. Heavy drinking is a major cause of chronic pancreatitis and a risk factor for type 2 diabetes — and both of these are linked to pancreatic cancer. In fact, heavy drinking may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer by 19 percent. Add in smoking and you could bring on the tumor earlier. Quitting smoking and drinking will help, but your body will still carry the damage for a decade. 

The evidence of a link between alcohol consumption and colon, rectum, stomach, prostate, and endometrial cancer remain controversial, the NIAAA reports, largely because scientists haven’t pinned down the mechanism within the body. But we can see signs of a link in studies of big populations. 

The bottom line is that heavy drinking is bad for you. What’s too much? In the United States, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture have defined moderate drinking as no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men.  


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November 18, 2016

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN