Can Alcohol Cause Cancer?

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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The 7 (or 10) Cancers Alcohol Causes

As if there weren’t enough health risks associated with alcohol use, a recent study has found ten more. In July, the Society for the Study of Addiction (SSA) found that alcohol consumption leads to seven different types of cancer, and possibly to three more. Every year in America alone there are 88,000 alcohol-caused deaths. The SSA study’s findings will sadly increase this already outrageous death toll from alcohol consumption.

Nearly 6% of worldwide cancer is attributable to alcohol, according to the study. Those at highest risk are those who abuse alcohol, and the risk increases with consumption. Regardless, this is big news, showing that drinkers like Bob are at much more health risk than previously thought.  Let’s discuss which cancers alcohol causes, how alcohol causes them, how to reduce your risk level, and why this is causing a stir among health experts.

1. Liver Cancer

It’s well known that alcohol use causes liver damage. However, it may be lesser known that alcohol use can lead to liver cancer. The breakdown of alcohol inside of the liver causes damage to the liver cells. Essentially, inside the liver, broken-down alcohol is used as fuel for the body, as opposed to fat like usual. This leads to fatty liver disease. Continued alcohol use with fatty liver disease leads to alcoholic hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver. The last step is cirrhosis, when liver cells are replaced by scar tissue and blood flow slows down. This can lead to cancer and even death.

Drinking like Bob, (2.5 beers or 18 oz. of wine a day), results in a 1.5 times greater risk for liver cancer versus drinking less or not at all. As always, the more you drink, the more you put yourself at risk.

2. Colon Cancer

Alcohol consumption, whether excessive or long-term or both, causes what are known as adenomas in the colon. These are tiny and benign tumors, and are harmless at this stage. However, adenomas can develop into polyps, which are larger and can be pre-cancerous.

A 2001 study published by the British Medical Journal showed that “alcoholism was a risk factor for the development of high risk adenomas or colorectal cancer.” The authors of the study even went so far as to recommend that all alcoholics be screened for such health issues. Drinking like Bob results in a 1.5 times greater risk for colon cancer.

3. Rectal Cancer

This is basically the same as colon cancer. Instead of forming on the colonic walls, the cancer develops from benign growths in the rectum. An article published in 2011 in the Oxford Journals concluded that any more than one drink a day puts one at risk for rectal cancer. “Our results have shown that alcohol consumption was associated with an increase in risk for colorectal cancer, for intakes of >1 drink/day. Thus, public health recommendations for colorectal cancer prevention should consider limiting intake of alcoholic beverages,” wrote the authors.

Drinking like Bob results in a 1.21 times greater risk for rectal cancer, but having four or more drinks a day results in a 1.52 times greater risk. Only by consuming one or less alcoholic beverage daily can one be risk-free.

4. Breast Cancer

It’s not exactly common knowledge that alcohol use can lead to breast cancer. Yet the risks here are rather high. According to non-profit website, “Research consistently shows that drinking alcohol beverages… can increase levels of estrogen and other hormones associated with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer.” It only three drinks a week for a woman to have a 15% higher risk. If that woman is fifteen years old or younger, her risk is tripled.

Men who drink are also at risk., a similar non-profit devoted to all types of cancer, states that men “have a higher rate of benign male breast growth (gynecomastia) and also have an increased risk of developing breast cancer.” This happens by lowering the amount of androgens, or male hormones, in the body.

Drinking like Bob can result in a risk increase anywhere from 15-45% for women, and results in a 1.5 times greater risk for men.

5. Oropharyngeal Cancer

oropharyngeal cancer

As pictured above, the oropharynx is the middle of the throat. The back of the tongue, the tonsils, and the walls of the throat are part of it. Oropharyngeal cancer occurs when malignant cells form in the tissues of the oropharynx. Alcohol consumption greatly increases the risk of this type of cancer, and the ratio of quantity to risk is frightening. Consider this…

A study published by the National Library of Medicine in 2011 showed that drinking like Bob results in a 1.75 times greater risk for oropharyngeal cancer. However, if you drink four or more a day, it results in a risk anywhere from 3.2 to 9.2 times greater. Plus, in order to become risk-free after having been at risk, one must go 10-15 years without any drinks, according to the study. On top of it all, the risk of oropharyngeal cancer from alcohol is the same for cigarette smokers as for non-smokers.

“The evidence for the human carcinogenic effects of alcohol drinking on the risk of cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx has been considered sufficient,” wrote the authors.

6. Laryngeal Cancer

The two main risk factors for developing cancer of the larynx, otherwise known as the voice box? Tobacco and alcohol. Known as one of the more unpleasant cancers, as if any were pleasant, laryngeal cancer occurs when malignant cells form in the tissues of the larynx. This is located between your throat and esophagus. (See above picture for more detail.)

According to Oral Oncology, “Epidemiological studies consistently showed that alcohol drinking increases the risk of laryngeal cancer. This risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed…” Furthermore, concurrent tobacco use dramatically increases the risk. “Alcohol drinking may influence laryngeal cancer risk particularly through its direct contact or solvent action, perhaps by enhancing the effects of tobacco or other environmental carcinogens.”

Drinking like Bob increases the risk of laryngeal cancer by four to seven times.

7. Esophageal Cancer

Just as with laryngeal cancer, the two main risk factors here are tobacco and alcohol. It’s common sense, really. Any cancer associated with the mouth/throat probably derives from something carcinogenic being introduced regularly to that area of the body. If that something is alcohol, you increase your risk of developing cancer of the esophagus, the tube that leads to your stomach, (AKA the food pipe), by up to 7.65 times in heavy drinkers.

As stated in a 2008 National Library of Medicine study, “Alcohol was a potent risk factor with a clear dose-response relationship, particularly for esophageal squamous-cell cancer.”

Drinking like Bob results in a 4-7 times greater risk for esophageal cancer.

8. The Other Three Cancers

Remember the Society for the Study of Addiction study? According to Jennie Connor, one of its authors, alcohol may also lead to cancers of the skin, the prostate, and the pancreas. Not enough evidence was found to affirm this in writing, but Connor believes alcohol does indeed cause ten different forms of cancer. So how exactly does alcohol do this?


A ‘carcinogen’ is anything capable of causing cancer in living things. Alcohol is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, meaning it causes cancer in human beings. When alcohol is broken down by the body, it is turned into acetaldehyde. “Most of the ethanol in the body is broken down in the liver by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, which transforms ethanol into a toxic compound called acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen,” according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Regarding cancers of the liver, colon, rectum, breast, skin, prostate, and pancreas, it’s safe to say acetaldehyde is the main culprit. Regarding the mouth and/or throat cancers, the answer is fairly obvious. Alcoholic beverages pass through these regions with every sip, and the breakdown process begins in the mouth. Science does not have every single detail figured out, but on average, drinking ANY amount of alcohol increases risk of cancer anywhere from 10 to 15 percent.

How to Avoid Risk

Frankly, there is no other way to avoid being at risk for cancer than to simply not drink. According to Jennie Connor, the so-called ‘benefits’ of light to moderate drinking are “…irrelevant in comparison to the increase in risk of a range of cancers.” Connor goes on to say that there is literally no safe level of drinking when it comes to risk of cancer.

The SSA researchers note in their conclusion that many studies have proven alcohol to have cardiovascular benefits, especially red wine. However, according to the authors, “…a high level of skepticism regarding these findings is now warranted.” That being said, drinking lightly, which is one drink or less per day, places you at minimal risk for developing any of these ten cancers. Also, simply knowing these risks exist can help. The problem is we don’t know they exist.

As said by Jana Witt of Cancer Research UK, “We know that nine in 10 people aren’t aware of the link between alcohol and cancer, and this review [the SSA study] is a stark reminder that there’s strong evidence linking the two.” This means millions of people are at risk. Bob is at risk. Are you? Perhaps you are not, since last year, for the first time in fifteen years, the world drank less than usual.

Drinking Rates are Down?

According to a Newser article published this year, “…global alcohol consumption fell by 0.7% in 2015. It’s the first time people are drinking less alcohol since Euromonitor started tracking that stat in 2001—and likely even before that.” Although experts believe the decrease is due to a slumping economy, facts are facts. Still, the authors of the SSA study estimated that half a million Americans (and therefore many more worldwide) may have cancer as a result of alcohol consumption.

You Can Still Have a Beer

All of this doesn’t mean you can’t have a few drinks responsibly now and again. There is a thick line between alcohol abuse and enjoying alcohol maturely. What all of this does mean is to be more careful and aware of your drinking habits, especially if you drink like our friend Bob or more often. Let’s be honest. Chances are most people will not hear about the results of this study. Chances are nine out of ten people will remain in the dark about this eye-opening information.

Some are trying to raise awareness. According to Newser, “Health experts are calling for warning labels on booze, like those on tobacco products…” Currently there are warning labels on most alcoholic beverage containers, but they are in tiny print and off to the side. The push is for them to be clearer and perhaps now to include the fact that alcohol consumption can be carcinogenic.

If you are a drinker, consume alcohol safely. Don’t let alcohol consume you. If you or someone you love is caught in an alcohol addiction, please, seek help immediately.

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