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The Link Between Alcohol & Cancer

Published on August 6, 2021
Does Alcohol Cause Cancer? | The Link Between Alcohol & Cancer

Alcohol is a known carcinogen or substance that can increase your risk of cancer. Some ingredients in alcoholic drinks can change the cells in your body, causing them to grow uncontrollably in the form of a cancerous tumor.

If you drink alcohol, some parts of your body are at a higher risk of cancer than others. The liver, throat, breast, and colon are four areas where cancer commonly develops due to alcohol use.

Alcohol’s Role In Different Types Of Cancer

Cancer is defined as the unchecked growth of cells. This growth is usually caused by a change in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) that changes how cells work. Cancer can affect any group of cells in the body, preventing them from doing their jobs correctly, before growing and spreading.

When alcohol is broken down in the body, part of it becomes acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde can affect your body’s cells down to their DNA, which can lead to the uncontrolled growth of cancer. 

Alcohol can also lead to oxidation in the body, a process that can damage the DNA and structure of cells.

Generally, the risk of a cancer diagnosis increases with the amount of alcohol you drink. Constant heavy drinking (8 to 15 or more standard drinks per week) has a higher risk for cancer than constant moderate drinking (1 or 2 standard drinks per day).

Throat Cancer

Many areas in the throat (or pharynx) have a higher risk of cancer after long-term alcohol use, including the mouth, esophagus, larynx (voice box), and the throat itself. Alcohol is constantly coming in contact with these areas when you drink it.

Statistics for alcohol use and forms of throat cancer range from a 30% higher risk to 5 times the risk. Esophageal cancer and oral cavity cancer have some of the highest risks after heavy alcohol use in this area.

Outside factors, such as genetics, can also affect your risk of throat cancer after drinking.

Liver Cancer

Liver cancer can be a late-stage form of alcohol-related liver damage. Drinking alcohol can cause fatty liver disease, which can progress into hepatitis, liver inflammation, liver cirrhosis, and even liver cancer.

Alcohol and its main ingredient, ethanol, are mostly broken down in the liver, exposing the liver to carcinogens like acetaldehyde.

Data collected from many years of studies suggests that one standard drink a day can increase your risk of liver cancer by about 10%. However, numbers can vary depending on your drinking habits and the type of liver damage studied.

Breast Cancer

Moderate alcohol consumption can increase the risk of breast cancer by between 30 to 50 percent, making alcohol an alarming risk factor for breast cancer. This risk can go up if you drink even more alcoholic beverages over a long period of time.

Acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen, often finds its way to breast tissue after the body breaks alcohol down. Ethanol also affects estrogen production in the body, and higher estrogen production is linked to higher risks for uncontrolled growth in breast tissue.

Colon Cancer

Compared to non-drinkers, people who drink alcohol may have a 20 to 50 percent higher risk of colorectal (colon and rectum) cancer. These numbers may vary depending on factors like body weight, amount of alcohol ingested, and other factors.

Alcohol is a known risk factor for forms of irritable bowel disease, chronic conditions which also have increased risks for colorectal cancer. Inflammation in the colon and a weakened immune system may play a role in this part of the body.

Alcohol Use & Reducing Your Cancer Risk

Not drinking alcohol at all likely helps with cancer prevention, compared to any amount of drinking. However, many past studies have claimed moderate alcohol consumption, especially red wine, reduces your risk of certain cancers such as kidney cancer and forms of lymphoma.

Red wine contains antioxidants that have been shown to fight cancer in some settings, but wine itself can increase your risk of cancer, and the downsides often weigh any potential upsides of drinking alcohol.

Alcohol can also indirectly increase your risk of cancer through your body’s metabolism. Alcohol causes lower absorption of vitamins and nutrients, some of which are linked to lower cancer risks. Your body may not be able to take in important vitamins well, including:

  • vitamin A
  • types of vitamin B (such as folate)
  • vitamin C
  • vitamin D

Treatment For Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol’s link to cancer is still being researched. Newer research points to alcohol being a risk factor for pancreatic cancer and forms of skin cancer. If you quit drinking alcohol, you can cut a large risk factor for many forms of cancer out of your life.

Many heavy drinkers struggle to quit drinking even if their health is suffering. Alcohol is a substance that can affect your physical and mental health, and treatment programs that tackle both aspects may be needed.

To find an alcohol abuse treatment program that can get your health back on track, please contact us today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.
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