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Does Alcohol Cause Cancer in Individuals? [The Risk Unveiled]
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Does Alcohol Cause Cancer in Individuals? [The Risk Unveiled]

Written by Seth Fletcher on April 1, 2024
Medically reviewed by Dr. Chintan Shah
Last update: April 1, 2024

Alcohol use has been linked to an increased risk of several diseases, including cancer. There may be talk about the benefits of moderate alcohol use, but alcohol consumption causes physical and chemical changes in the body that can increase cancer risk. 

Does alcohol cause cancer in individuals? CCFA explores the connection between cancer and alcohol use, the types of cancer most commonly linked to alcohol, and what you can do to reduce your risk. 

Key Takeaways

  • Alcohol consumption is a risk factor for several types of cancer
  • The risk of developing cancer increases with the amount of alcohol consumed
  • Even moderate amounts of alcohol can contribute to cancer risk
  • Regulating alcohol consumption can help lower cancer risk

How and Why Does Drinking Alcohol Cause Cancer?

According to a WHO study cited by the National Cancer Institute, alcohol is a carcinogen, and approximately 4% of worldwide cancer diagnoses in 2020 could be traced to alcohol consumption. Alcohol is a widely accepted part of social gatherings and celebrations. But is alcohol a drug, and why is it considered cancerous? Indeed, alcohol is one of the most addictive drugs, and its carcinogenic effects can occur in several ways:

  • Cell DNA Damage

Alcohol consumption leads to the production of free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules that can damage DNA and other cellular components, leading to cancer. It can also interfere with the body’s ability to repair damaged DNA, increasing cancer risk.

  • Increased Estrogen Levels

Alcohol can increase the levels of estrogen in the body by affecting the activity of enzymes responsible for breaking down estrogen. When estrogen is not properly broken down, it can build up in the body, leading to an increased risk of certain types of cancer. Specifically, high estrogen levels are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer, as well as ovarian and endometrial cancer.

  • Increased Acetaldehyde Production

When alcohol is broken down in the body, it produces acetaldehyde, a toxic byproduct which can cause alcohol poisoning. Acetaldehyde can also damage DNA and interfere with normal cell processes, leading to cancer. It can bind to DNA and cause mutations, affecting the activity of certain genes, including those that regulate cell replication and death, potentially causing cancer.  

  • Inflammation

Alcohol consumption has been shown to increase the levels of specific inflammatory markers in the body through a cascade of mechanisms. When alcohol tolerance or addiction leads to chronic inflammation, it can damage body tissues and cells, leading to cancer. 

  • Increased Absorption of Other Carcinogens

Alcohol can elevate the cancer risk by increasing the absorption of carcinogens like tobacco smoke, air pollutants, and certain foods. Carcinogenic contaminants like phenols, hydrocarbons, and nitrosamines may also be introduced into alcoholic drinks during fermentation and production. 

Consistent alcohol use can damage the lining of the stomach and intestine, leading to increased permeability of the intestinal barrier. This leakiness allows carcinogens to be absorbed into the bloodstream, leading to cell mutations that can cause cancer.

Alcohol Consumption and Cancer Risk Factors

The factors that can increase an individual’s risk of developing cancer from alcohol use include:

Amount of Alcohol Consumed

Heavy drinking (defined as consuming five or more drinks in a single occasion or 15 per week for men and four or more drinks in a single occasion or 8 per week for women) can contribute to cancer risk. 

Duration of Drinking

How long one has been drinking may also play a role in the development of cancer. People who start drinking at a young age may carry a higher alcohol cancer risk. 

Nutrition

Poor nutrition may play a role in the development of cancer. A person who drinks and fails to eat healthily may have a higher risk of cancer. A diet low in fruits and vegetables but high in red and processed meat can increase the amount of carcinogens in the body. Saturated fats and sugar can also promote the growth of cancer cells in alcohol users.

Obesity

Alcohol users who are obese or overweight may be at increased risk of cancer for several reasons. Obesity is associated with increased levels of hormones like estrogen, which promote the growth of cancer cells. It may also cause insulin resistance and chronic inflammation, both of which increase cancer risk. 

Smoking or Exposure to Second-hand Smoke

The combination of smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke and alcohol can significantly increase the risk of cancer. Like alcohol, smoking damages DNA and increases the amount of carcinogens in the body. The combination of these two factors can lead to a much higher risk of developing cancer. 

How Much Alcohol Causes Cancer?

The amount of alcohol that causes cancer is not clearly defined, but it is generally thought that even small amounts of alcohol may increase the risk. According to the National Cancer Institute, drinking one or two drinks daily increases the risk of certain cancers, including cancers of the mouth, throat, liver, and breast. It is important to note that the risk of cancer increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. So, people who drink a lot or struggle with alcohol addiction carry an increased cancer risk. 

What Type of Cancer Does Alcohol Cause?

Some cancers caused by alcohol use include:

Throat Cancer

Alcohol can cause throat cancer because of its interaction with specific proteins in the throat. It can damage these proteins and lead to the development of cancerous cells. The production of acetaldehyde may also contribute to the growth of cancerous cells in the throat. In addition, people who drink and smoke may be at even higher risk of developing throat cancer. 

Mouth Cancer

Alcohol can cause irritation and inflammation of the mouth’s lining, leading to oral leukoplakia. This condition is characterized by white patches in the mouth and can be a precursor to cancer. Alcohol can also interfere with the body’s ability to absorb vitamins and minerals like folic acid, which is essential for maintaining healthy cells. The lack of folate can contribute to the development of oral cancer. 

Esophageal Cancer

Alcohol can irritate and damage the lining of the esophagus, leading to inflammation and increased cell turnover. This damage can increase the risk of mutations that can lead to cancer. Alcohol can also cause reduced production of butyrate, a substance that may play a role in cancer prevention

Breast Cancer

Alcohol and breast cancer are linked due to the action of alcohol in increasing estrogen levels. A high level of estrogen means that the individual is more likely to develop breast cancer. Alcohol may also increase the levels of certain liver enzymes, which contribute to breast cancer. 

Liver Cancer

Alcohol can damage the liver cells, leading to a condition known as cirrhosis. This condition causes scarring of the liver and can cause cancer. Alcohol use can also cause the liver to produce more nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens. 

Colorectal Cancer

Alcohol’s actions on hormones like estrogen and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) could contribute to the risk of colorectal cancer as they promote the growth of cancerous cells. Prolonged alcohol use can also damage the lining of the colon, which can lead to inflammation and the development of polyps – small growths that can become cancerous over time.  . 

Tips on Limiting Alcohol Consumption for Cancer Prevention

The best way to prevent cancer from alcohol is by abstaining from alcohol. However, alcohol is one of the world’s most addictive drugs, and many people will struggle to abstain. It’s also an essential component of many social gatherings, so abstinence for some is impractical. However, you can take steps to limit your use and prevent alcohol’s carcinogenic effects: 

  • Know How Much Alcohol You’re Consuming

Being aware of how much alcohol you’re consuming can help you make informed decisions about your drinking habit. If you know you’re drinking more than the recommended daily limit, you can make an effort to reduce your alcohol consumption. Also, being aware of your alcohol consumption allows you to identify patterns in your drinking habits that may be contributing to your overall risk of developing cancer. 

The American Society of Clinical Oncology suggests people who must drink alcohol should limit their intake to a maximum of two drinks per day for men and one for women. 

  • Set Limits on the Number of Days per Week You Drink

Limiting the number of days per week that you drink allows you to keep your overall alcohol consumption within a healthy range. For example, if you set a limit to two days per week that you will drink alcohol, you’re less likely to binge drink and more likely to stay within your limit. Limiting your drinking days can also help you create a healthy, sustainable drinking routine. 

  • Avoid Binge Drinking 

Binge drinking is associated with a higher risk of various cancers and can increase the risk of other alcohol-related diseases. You can reduce your overall cancer risk by steering clear of binge drinking.  

  • Eat a Healthy Diet

Prioritizing health care helps in preventing many diseases. Eating a healthy diet can prevent alcohol from cancer by reducing the amount of alcohol absorbed into the bloodstream. Foods that are high in protein, healthy fats, and fibre can help to slow the absorption of alcohol. Also, eating a balanced diet can boost the body’s natural detoxification system, which helps to eliminate alcohol from the body.

The best way to prevent cancer from alcohol is by quitting altogether. However, this can be tough, especially for people with alcohol addiction. The Canadian Centre for Addiction offers alcohol addiction treatment in an environment that inspires lasting change. If you notice signs of alcoholism in a loved one or think that your drinking habits have become a problem, our team at CCFA can help. We help our clients understand how to detox from alcohol use safely and the healthier coping strategies available by engaging them in one-on-one counselling with certified counsellors, psychiatrists, and mental health professionals. Call 1-855-499-9446 to learn more about our services.

FAQ

How common is it to get cancer from alcohol?

The risk of developing cancer from alcohol varies depending on several factors, such as the amount of alcohol consumed and the frequency of use. However, a study of worldwide cancer diagnoses in 2020 showed that 4% of cancer cases could be linked to alcohol.

Does quitting alcohol reduce cancer risk?

Yes. Quitting alcohol can reduce overall cancer risk, even if you’ve been drinking for many years. However, the risk of some types of cancer, such as liver cancer, may take longer to decrease after quitting. In general, quitting alcohol can significantly reduce your risk, especially if you stop drinking early and pay attention to your health.

Is alcohol more carcinogenic than cigarettes?

It is challenging to directly compare the carcinogenic effects of alcohol and cigarettes, as they act on the body in different ways. However, cigarettes are generally considered more carcinogenic than alcohol as they contain chemicals like nicotine and tar, which cause cancer. Smoking cigarettes also exposes the entire body to these chemicals, including the lungs, which is not the case for alcohol.

Can alcohol cause leukemia (cancer of the blood cells)?

There is no well-established link between alcohol use and leukemia. Studies on the subject have produced inconsistent results over the years. While some research seems to show a link between alcohol use and leukemia, others imply that light drinking may be favourable to leukemia risk reduction.

What does alcohol do to your cells?

Alcohol increases the risk of cancer due to several effects on the cells, including:
● Cell DNA damage
● Interference with cell division
● Disrupts cell communication
● Reduces cell adhesion

How do I help an alcoholic friend or loved one?

Some tips on how to help an alcoholic friend or loved one include:
● Learn about alcohol use disorder
● Encourage them to seek help
● Help them find available treatment programs
● Accompany them to therapy and support meetings
● Help them find healthy ways to relieve stress

Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.

Dr. Chintan is a Board Certified Family Physician with an interest in holistic and preventative care as well as healthcare systems. Credentialed Physician with both American & Canadian Board of Family Medicine. Adjunct Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. Telemedicine clinician.

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