Alcohol

Approved by the Lineagotica Editorial Board, 10/2017

Like tobacco, alcohol is one of the few substances consistently linked to an increased risk of cancer. The type of alcohol—wine, beer, or liquor—does not matter.

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing these types of cancer:

The risk of developing these cancers is higher the more a person drinks, particularly over time. The risk is higher for cancers of the larynx, esophageal, and oral cavity. This is because these tissues come into direct contact with the alcohol when a person drinks it.

Reasons why alcohol increases cancer risk

Researchers are still trying to discover why alcohol increases cancer risk. Here are some possibilities:

  • The increased risk may be related to 2 chemicals that can damage the DNA of healthy cells:

    • Ethanol, which is the primary part of alcoholic beverages

    • Acetaldehyde, which is made when alcohol is digested by the body

    • Alcohol may affect the breakdown of the hormone estrogen, which increases the amount of estrogen in the blood. Having more estrogen in the body than usual is a risk factor for breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers. This is a particular concern for women before menopause and women taking menopausal hormone therapy.

  • Drinking alcohol may weaken the body’s ability to process and absorb important nutrients, including:

    • Vitamin A

    • Vitamin C

    • Vitamin D

    • Vitamin E

    • Folate

    • Carotenoids

    • Alcohol can cause weight gain, which also increases cancer risk.

Recommendations for alcohol use

There is no proven way to completely prevent cancer. However, there are steps you can take to lower your alcohol-related risk:

  • Limit the number of alcoholic beverages you drink. For women, limit it to no more than 1 drink a day. For men, limit it to no more than 1 to 2 drinks a day. A drink is defined as:

    • 12 ounces (oz) or 341 milliliters (ml) of beer

    • 5 oz or 142 ml of wine

    • 1.5 oz or 43 ml of 80-proof liquor

    This is the definition of moderate drinking. You can view a table that summarizes what counts as a standard drink. Please note this link takes you to a separate website. Women concerned about their breast cancer risk may want to further limit their alcohol intake to no more than 3 to 4 drinks a week.

  • Do not binge drink or drink heavily. For women, heavy drinking means having 4 or more drinks in a short period. For men, it means having 5 or more drinks. Binge drinking may increase your risk for certain cancers, even if you do not binge drink often. 

  • Do not make an exception for red wine. There is no clear evidence that drinking red wine helps to prevent cancer. Thus, the current recommended limits also apply to red wine.  

  • Avoid using both alcohol and tobacco products. The combination further increases the risks of developing certain cancers. These include cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus.

  • Eating enough folate may help protect against the risk of some cancers linked with alcohol, such as breast cancer. Folate is found in leafy, green vegetables, fruit, and dried beans and peas.

  • Talk with your doctor if you are taking menopausal hormone therapy. Combined with alcohol, this may further increase the risk of some cancers, such as breast cancer.

  • The risk of developing the types of cancer listed above increases when you drink more alcohol. But there is still some increased risk of developing cancer with light drinking, which means that you drink less than the recommended daily limit. Talk with your doctor about your risk for the cancers mentioned. The doctor may recommend further limiting or avoiding alcohol to help lower your risk.

  • If you are receiving treatment for cancer, ask your doctor if you need to avoid alcohol. For example, alcohol may irritate or worsen treatment-related mouth sores or dry mouth. Additionally, alcohol may increase the risk of side effects from treatment by causing dehydration or nutrient loss.

Alcohol and cancer recurrence

In studies of breast cancer survivors, moderate alcohol use was not shown to increase the risk of recurrence. Recurrence is the return of the cancer. Additionally, moderate alcohol use was not shown to lower the survival rates.

Similar information about other types of cancers is limited. However, it is probably still best to avoid heavy drinking after a cancer diagnosis because of the link to cancer risk.

Studies also show that head and neck cancer survivors who continue to drink are at an increased risk of recurrence. This is especially true with moderate to heavy drinking.

If you are a cancer survivor, talk with your doctor about how much alcohol you drink and the effect it could have on your long-term health.

The information in this article is based on Alcohol and Cancer: A Statement of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, found on ASCO’s website.

Related Resources

More Information

National Cancer Institute: Alcohol and Cancer Risk