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Alcohol and Cancer

The association between alcohol use and cancer is familiar to cancer epidemiologists yet often overlooked by many due to the normalization of alcohol in society. Seven types of cancer have firmly established links to alcohol consumption, with suspicions of connections to numerous other cancer types. Beyond the risk of developing cancer, alcohol can also hinder treatment and recovery for both active cancer patients and survivors.

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Connection Between Alcohol Consumption and Cancer

The link between alcohol use and cancer is well-known among cancer epidemiology experts. However, yet many people remain unaware of these risks due to alcohol’s normalization in daily life.

Seven types of cancers have established links to alcohol use—with many other types of cancers suspected to be connected to alcohol.

Not only can alcohol cause certain cancers, but it can also negatively affect treatment and recovery for active cancer patients and cancer survivors.

Does Alcohol Cause Cancer?

Yes, alcohol can cause cancer. Alcohol, specifically ethanol, is a known carcinogen. Research indicates there is strong evidence that drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer.

Although more research is needed to understand the full scope of alcohol and cancer, it’s clear that consuming alcohol does increase cancer risks, no matter the amount.

According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol use accounts for about 6% of all cancers and 4% of all cancer deaths in the US.

Current research has confirmed the link between the following cancers:

  • Mouth cancer
  • Voice box cancer (larynx)
  • Throat cancer (pharynx)
  • Esophagus cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Colon and rectum cancer

In addition, there is evidence that heavy drinking may increase the risk of stomach cancer.

In the case of breast cancer, there’s evidence that even small quantities of alcoholic beverages could increase your risk.

Because of the strong connection between alcohol and certain cancers, it’s highly recommended that heavy alcohol users get regular cancer screenings to obtain a cancer diagnosis in its early stages.

Avoiding alcohol consumption is considered a major form of cancer prevention.

How Drinking Alcohol Can Increase Your Cancer Risk

How alcohol increases cancer risk is not completely understood, as causes can vary depending on the type of cancer. However, there are a few causes researchers have identified. One of the leading causes of alcohol-related cancer is believed to be acetaldehyde.

Acetaldehyde is a harmful chemical created as the body breaks down alcohol, harming cells and damaging their DNA. When cells duplicate or repair themselves, they rely on DNA as their “instruction manual.”

However, if that instruction manual is damaged, the cell will be duplicated or repaired incorrectly and can become cancerous or grow into a cancer tumor.

Other ways drinking alcohol can increase your cancer risk include:

  • Alcohol causes inflammation and scarring, further damaging cells.
  • Alcohol may help other harmful chemicals, like tobacco products, enter cells or affect the body’s ability to remove harmful chemicals.
  • Alcohol can add too many calories to a person’s diet and lead to obesity, a major risk factor for cancer.
  • Alcohol can affect the production of estrogen, a hormone essential in the development of breast tissue, and thus play a part in breast cancer risks.
  • Alcohol may prevent the proper absorption of vital nutrients, leading to malnutrition and worsening cell health.

Is One Type of Alcohol Safer Than the Rest?

No, there is not a “safe” type of alcohol because all alcoholic drinks contain ethanol, which is a known carcinogen. Several years ago, there were a few studies that suggested small amounts of alcohol could help prevent heart disease, but this has since been ruled out as inconclusive.

Even if alcohol could help prevent heart disease, there is no avoiding the fact that alcohol does increase the risk of cancer. There is no safe type of alcohol, nor is there a safe amount of alcohol to consume.

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Cancers Linked to Alcohol Consumption

While studies have confirmed a link between alcohol and the following types of cancers, other types could possibly be linked but haven’t been confirmed. Further research is needed to confirm the link with other cancers.

Mouth, Throat, and Voice Box Cancer

Cancer of the mouth and neck has been linked with moderate to heavy alcohol consumption. It’s believed cancer is likely in these areas, as they are the first entry point of alcohol to the body. Moderate-to-heavy drinking can damage the tissue of these areas and lead to cancerous cells.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the following risks for mouth, throat, and voice box cancer have been identified:

  • Moderate drinkers have a 1.8-fold higher risk of developing mouth cancer (excluding the lips) and pharynx (throat) cancer and a 1.4-fold higher risk of larynx cancer (voice box) than non-drinkers.
  • Heavy drinkers have a 5-fold higher risk of oral cavity and pharynx cancers and a 2.6-fold higher risk of larynx cancers.

Esophagus Cancer

The esophagus is the next part of the body to make contact with alcohol and can suffer similar damage to esophageal cells. Alcohol has been linked with a type of esophageal cancer called esophageal squamous cell carcinoma.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the following risks for esophagus cancer have been identified:

  • Compared with no alcohol consumption, the risk of esophagus cancer ranges from 1.3-fold higher for light drinking to nearly 5-fold higher for heavy drinking.
  • Individuals who inherit a deficiency in an enzyme that metabolizes alcohol may have increased risks of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma if they consume alcohol, regardless of the amount.

Breast Cancer

The connection between breast cancer and alcohol use is well-established due to how alcohol raises estrogen levels, a hormone responsible for the growth of breast tissue. High estrogen levels have been linked to the risk of breast cancer.

In fact, research shows that women who have one alcoholic drink a day have a 7% to 10% increase in risk compared with those who don’t drink, and those who have two to three drinks a day have about a 20% higher risk of breast cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the following risks for breast cancer have been identified:

  • Light drinkers have a slightly increased (1.04-fold higher) risk of breast cancer compared with nondrinkers.
  • The risk increase is greater in moderate drinkers (1.23-fold higher) and heavy drinkers (1.6-fold higher).

Liver Cancer

Unsurprisingly, alcohol is strongly linked to liver cancer, as the liver is responsible for processing most of the alcohol that enters your body. Alcohol can inflict massive amounts of damage on the liver through serious liver diseases like cirrhosis (scarring).

According to the National Cancer Institute, the following risks for liver cancer have been identified:

  • Individuals who engage in heavy alcohol consumption have approximately a 2-fold increased risk of two types of liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma and intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma).
  • Most people who develop liver cancer already have some evidence of cirrhosis (scarring), although not all people will have cirrhosis.

Colon and Rectum Cancer

Colorectal cancer risks are elevated even for those who engage in moderate drinking. As an alcoholic beverage goes through your digestive tract, the effects of alcohol can damage the cells of your colon and rectum.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the following risks for colon and rectum cancer have been identified:

  • Moderate to heavy alcohol consumption is shown to have a 1.2- to 1.5-fold increased risk of cancers of the colon and rectum compared with no alcohol consumption.
  • Even light-to-moderate alcohol intake has been associated with some risk of developing colon or rectal cancer.

Other Cancers Possibly Linked to Alcohol

Researchers suspect that alcohol may be linked to increased risk factors for other cancer types as well, although more studies are needed to confirm the connection. However, healthcare professionals still take these possible connections seriously.

Other cancers that may have increased risk from alcohol use include:

  • Stomach cancer
  • Ovarian (ovaries) cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Uterine (uterus) cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer

Active Cancer Patients and Alcohol Consumption

No question drinking alcohol while actively having cancer is a dangerous combination. Most health professionals specializing in oncology (e.g., the study of cancer) urge cancer patients to avoid alcohol while in treatment.

For individuals with alcohol use disorder, it can be difficult and sometimes even dangerous to stop drinking immediately. Cancer patients must be completely honest with their healthcare provider about their potential alcohol abuse (or addiction) for treatment to be as effective.

How Does Alcohol Affect Cancer?

Alcohol can prevent cancer treatment effectiveness and worsen the overall health of cancer patients, whose bodies are already weakened from treatment. For patients undergoing chemotherapy and/or radiation, consuming alcohol can make these treatments less effective.

However, the risks don’t end once a cancer patient enters remission. Research shows that even long-term cancer survivors can increase their chance of cancer recurrence by consuming alcohol, even years and decades into remission.

Should You Drink Alcohol During Cancer Treatment?

No. Drinking alcohol is one of the worst things you can do while actively in cancer treatment. Many of the treatments used for cancer must be processed by the liver, but alcohol consumption often inflames the liver.

An inflamed liver could prevent chemotherapy drugs from being properly broken down by the liver and increase the severity of treatment side effects. In addition, alcohol can worsen mouth sores, a common side effect of chemotherapy.

Quit Alcohol Use Safely

If you or a loved one engages in problematic drinking behaviors, especially binge drinking, your chances of developing cancer only grow the longer you abuse alcohol.

Addressing your alcohol use is the number one way to avoid joining the estimated 1.9 million cancer cases diagnosed every year.

Speak with your doctor about your alcohol use and cancer risk factors. Although it can be embarrassing to address a drinking problem, being honest about your alcohol usage could be life-saving in the end.

If you’re ready for treatment but aren’t sure where to start, try SAMHSA’s online treatment locator or call 1-800-662-4357 (HELP) to learn what alcohol addiction treatment options are accepting new patients near you.

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FAQs About Alcohol and Cancer

What are the chances of getting cancer from drinking alcohol?

The exact chances of getting cancer from drinking alcohol depend on the type of cancer, as well as other factors like how much you drink, how often, and other cancer risk factors like obesity or tobacco use. However, it’s clear that drinking alcohol does increase your chances of getting cancer across the board.

Can you drink alcohol if you have cancer?

It is highly discouraged. Not only can alcohol use weaken your already weakened immune system, but it can make treatment less effective due to how alcohol harms the liver. Because the liver is essential in breaking down chemotherapy drugs, side effects from treatment can also worsen.

To make matters worse, research suggests that alcohol use while in remission can increase your chances of the cancer returning.

What types of cancer does alcohol cause?

Alcohol use has been found to cause the following types of cancer:

  • Breast cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Esophagus cancer
  • Colon and rectum cancer
  • Mouth cancer
  • Voice box cancer (larynx)
  • Throat cancer (pharynx)

Alcohol use may possibly be linked to the following types of cancer:

  • Uterine (uterus) cancer
  • Ovarian (ovaries) cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Stomach cancer
  • Prostate cancer

How much alcohol consumption is considered safe to minimize your cancer risk?

There is no amount of alcohol that is “safe.” Any amount of alcohol can increase your risk of cancer. In some cases, such as breast cancer, even small amounts of alcohol have been found to increase your cancer risk.

Can moderate alcohol consumption still lead to cancer?

Yes. Any amount of alcohol consumption can lead to cancer. While moderate and heavy drinkers have a higher chance of developing cancer from alcohol, there is still some risk for light or occasional drinkers.

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

  1. Alcohol and Cancer Risk Fact Sheet. National Cancer Institute. (2021, July 14).
  2. Alcohol Use and Cancer. American Cancer Society. (2020, June 9).
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, March 13). Alcohol and Cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, March 13). Preventing Cancer by Reducing Excessive Alcohol Use. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  5. Hopkins, A. (2023, January 18). Study Probes Awareness of Alcohol’s Link to Cancer. National Cancer Institute.
  6. Meadows, G. G., & Zhang, H. (2015). Effects of Alcohol on Tumor Growth, Metastasis, Immune Response, and Host Survival. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews.
  7. Phillips, C. (2023, September 15). In People With Cancer, Heavy Drinking Is Common. National Cancer Institute.
  8. World Health Organization. (2021, July 14). Latest Global Data on Cancer Burden and Alcohol Consumption: More Than 740,000 New Cases of Cancer in 2020 Attributed to Alcohol. International Agency for Research on Cancer.

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