Does Alcoholism Increase Your Risk of Cancer?

Can drinking too much cause cancer?

Around 1000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed every day in the UK.1 Cancer is a devastating disease, and it’s important we understand what lifestyle choices put us at risk.

One of the biggest cancer risk factors that we can change is our alcohol consumption. Did you know that alcohol causes 4% of all cancers?2  That means that 1 out of 25 cancer cases could have been prevented by a reduction in alcohol consumption.

Is alcohol a risk factor for cancer?

Yes. Alcohol is classified as a type 1 carcinogen. This means that there is enough evidence to say for sure that alcohol causes cancer.3

Other examples of type 1 carcinogens include tobacco, asbestos, and types of radiation.2

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How alcohol causes cancer

We don’t yet know for sure how alcohol causes cancer, but there are several explanations:

  • The breakdown products of alcohol can damage our DNA

Alcohol is broken down into a compound called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde causes damage to the DNA in our cells. It also affects the cell’s ability to repair this damage.6 Researchers believe that the effects of acetaldehyde could be how alcohol causes cancer.

  • Alcohol can cause changes to hormone levels

Alcohol can change the levels of certain hormones. For example, alcohol increases oestrogen levels. Oestrogen can stimulate certain types of breast cancer growth.4 It’s possible that the changes in oestrogen are the cause of increased breast cancer risk in people who drink alcohol.

  • Alcohol overuse can lead to nutritional deficiencies

People who drink alcohol in excess are at risk of folic acid deficiency. Folic acid, also known as folate, is an important vitamin. Researchers believe that low folic acid may be associated with an increased risk of bowel cancer.5

  • Alcohol may damage the tissue in the mouth and throat

When we drink alcohol it irritates the tissue that lines our mouth and throat. There is a theory that this irritation could make the tissue more susceptible to damage from other substances such as cigarette smoke. This damage could, in turn, lead to cancer.

Are certain cancers linked to alcohol use?

Yes. We know from a large number of studies7 that alcohol increases the risk of these types of cancer:

  • Head and neck cancer

Alcohol increases the risk of developing cancer in the mouth and parts of the throat.7  Mouth cancer is referred to as oral cancer by medical professionals. Throat cancers affecting the larynx are called laryngeal cancers and throat cancers affecting the pharynx are called pharyngeal cancers. Usually, all three are grouped together under the term “head and neck cancer”.

There are around 12,400 cases of head and neck cancer every year in the UK.8 Out of these cases, 22-38% are linked to alcohol consumption.8

The survival rate for head and neck cancer depends on the type and how early it is detected. Between 19-59% of people diagnosed with head and neck cancer will survive 10 years or more.8

Head and neck cancer can cause the following symptoms:

  • Patches of discolouration inside the mouth
  • Sores that do not heal
  • Loss of sensation around the mouth
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Changes in speech
  • Changes in facial appearance
  • A sensation like there is something stuck in your throat
  • A visible lump in your neck
  • A persistent cough
  • Weight loss
  • Oesophageal Cancer

The oesophagus is the food pipe that connects the throat to the stomach. Oesophageal cancer is rare, causing around 9,300 cases every year in the UK.10Alcohol can increase the risk of oesophageal cancer.7

Oesophageal cancer has a poor prognosis. Only 12% of people will be alive 10 years after developing oesophageal cancer.10

Oesophageal cancer causes the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Acid reflux or ingestion
  • Pain in neck or chest
  • Persistent cough
  • A hoarse voice
  • Weight loss
  • Bowel Cancer

Bowel cancer is medically known as colorectal cancer. It is one of the most common causes of cancer. In the UK there are 42,900 new cases every year. Of these cases, 6% are caused by alcohol consumption.11

The prognosis of bowel cancer is much better than it used to be. Nowadays, 52% of people with bowel cancer will survive more than 10 years.11

Symptoms of bowel cancer:

  • Abdominal (tummy) pain
  • Difficulty going to the toilet
  • Passing blood in your poo
  • Changes to your bowel motions
  • Weight loss
  • Liver Cancer

Alcohol has many harmful effects on the liver, including causing liver cancer. Liver cancer is one of the less common cancers in the UK, with around 6,200 new cases every year. 7% of these cases are caused by alcohol.12

Liver cancer has one of the worse prognoses of cancers, with only 13% surviving for 5 or more years.12

Symptoms of liver cancer:

  • Pain in the upper right part of the abdomen (tummy)
  • Yellowing of the skin
  • Itchy skin
  • Swollen abdomen (tummy)
  • Feeling full despite not eating much
  • Weight loss
  • Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK. 1 in 7 females will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Every year, around 55,900 people are diagnosed with breast cancer. Of these cases, 8% are caused by alcohol consumption.13

Fortunately, breast cancer has a good prognosis. 76% of people with breast cancer will survive for at least ten years.13

Symptoms of breast cancer:

  • New lump in the breast
  • Change in shape or size of the breast
  • New dimpling of the breast
  • Changes to the breast skin
  • Change in nipple appearance
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • Lump/swelling in the armpit
  • Weight loss
Detoxing from codeine

Other cancers

Studies suggest that alcohol may also be linked to other cancers such as pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, and skin cancer.7 More evidence is required before we can say for certain that these are caused by alcohol.

How can I reduce my cancer risk?

There are many risk factors for cancer. Not all of them are factors we can change, but there are some that are.

You can reduce your cancer risk by:

  • Cutting down alcohol intake
  • Maintaining a healthy diet
  • Taking part in regular exercise
  • Keeping your weight in a healthy range
  • Avoiding tobacco smoke
 Yes, I want sobriety: call 01721 722 763.

How much alcohol increases cancer risk?

There is no “safe” level of drinking. Drinking alcohol is associated with many negative effects on health.

If you are going to drink alcohol, make sure you stick to the recommended guidelines to reduce the impact it has on your health. The NHS recommends keeping your weekly alcohol intake below 14 units. This figure is the same for both men and women. If you regularly drink 14 units a week, the NHS recommends splitting this intake over at least 3 days. This helps you to avoid excessive alcohol consumption.

Some people can find it challenging to manage their drinking habits. People who struggle with this may find it safer to cut out alcohol altogether.

Which alcohol causes cancer?

All alcoholic drinks can increase your cancer risk. This includes beer, spirits, and wine. There is no “safe” alcohol you can drink to reduce your cancer risk.

Drinking alcohol during cancer treatment

A lot of people ask the question “Can I drink alcohol during cancer treatment?”. The answer to this depends on several factors including your health, and what treatment you are receiving.

Some drugs used in cancer treatment can interact with alcohol. This could mean the drugs become less effective. This could also mean that you experience worse side effects from the drugs.  Generally, it’s best to speak to the specialist team who is organising your treatment. They will give you advice about what you should and shouldn’t do during treatment.

There is also emerging evidence that alcohol may increase the risk of cancer recurrence. Researchers have discovered that drinking alcohol might be associated with breast cancer recurrence.14 We need more evidence before we can say for certain.

How do I get help for alcohol addiction?

We know how challenging addiction can be, and we’re here to help. If you’re struggling with alcohol addiction, Castle Craig can provide you with the support you need. Our residential rehab centre is world-renowned, and our programmes are clinically proven to work.

For more information, request a call back from our help centre today.


  • Cancer statistics for the UK. Cancer Research UK. Accessed February 9, 2022.

  • Rumgay H, Shield K, Charvat H, et al. Global burden of cancer in 2020 attributable to alcohol consumption: a population-based study. Lancet Oncol. 2021;22(8):1071-1080. doi:10.1016/S1470-2045(21)00279-5

  • List of Classifications – IARC Monographs on the Identification of Carcinogenic Hazards to Humans. Published 2021. Accessed February 8, 2022.

  • Al-Sader H, Abdul-Jabar H, Allawi Z, Haba Y. Alcohol and breast cancer: the mechanisms explained. J Clin Med Res. 2009;1(3):125-131. doi:10.4021/jocmr2009.07.1246

  • Giovannucci E. Epidemiologic studies of folate and colorectal neoplasia: a review. J Nutr. 2002;132(8 Suppl):2350S-2355S. doi:10.1093/jn/132.8.2350S

  • Varela-Rey M, Woodhoo A, Martinez-Chantar ML, Mato JM, Lu SC. Alcohol, DNA methylation, and cancer. Alcohol Res. 2013;35(1):25-35.

  • Bagnardi V, Rota M, Botteri E, et al. Alcohol consumption and site-specific cancer risk: a comprehensive dose-response meta-analysis. Br J Cancer. 2015;112(3):580-593. doi:10.1038/bjc.2014.579

  • Head and neck cancers statistics. Cancer Research UK. Accessed February 9, 2022.

  • Head and neck cancers risk. Cancer Research UK. Accessed February 9, 2022.

  • Oesophageal cancer statistics. Cancer Research UK. Accessed February 9, 2022.

  • Bowel cancer statistics. Cancer Research UK. Accessed February 9, 2022.

  • Liver cancer statistics. Cancer Research UK. Accessed February 9, 2022.

  • Breast cancer statistics. Cancer Research UK. Accessed February 9, 2022.

  • Kwan ML, Kushi LH, Weltzien E, et al. Alcohol consumption and breast cancer recurrence and survival among women with early-stage breast cancer: the life after cancer epidemiology study. J Clin Oncol. 2010;28(29):4410-4416. doi:10.1200/JCO.2010.29.2730

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