The link between alcohol consumption and cancer risk

December 17, 2021 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

A new study shows that four percent of cancer cases worldwide are linked to alcohol consumption.

The study, published in July, found that 750,000 cases of cancer diagnosed worldwide were tied to alcohol use. And while heavy drinking, defined by researchers as drinking more than four alcoholic beverages a day, contributed to the majority of those cases, roughly 100,000 were tied to light to moderate alcohol use, researchers found.

The American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute note that the amount of alcohol consumed over time appears to be the prominent factor in increasing cancer risk.

Over time, heavy alcohol use can lead to the development of mouth, throat, esophageal, liver, breast and colorectal cancers, among others. The risk of cancer increases when alcohol use is combined with tobacco use.

Alcohol has been found to:

  • Increase estrogen levels, which in turn can increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer.

  • Damage body tissue. Once consumed, alcohol is converted into acetaldehyde, which can damage the DNA inside cells. Alcohol consumption can also cause cells to create more reactive oxygen species (also known as free radicals), which can damage DNA, causing cells to grow out of control and create a cancerous tumor.

  • Make it easier for other harmful chemicals, such as those found in tobacco smoke, to enter the cells lining the digestive track and increase a person’s risk for cancer.

  • Hamper the body’s ability to absorb nutrients that the body needs to stay healthy, raising the risk of some cancers.

  • Contribute to weight gain. Being overweight or obese increases a person’s risk for different types of cancer.

Along with these effects, alcohol may contribute to cancer growth in other, unknown ways.

Because the study only looked at current alcohol consumption, researchers suspect the number of cancer cases tied to alcohol consumption would have been higher if past consumption was also considered.

Researchers are hopeful the study will help raise awareness of the risks associated with alcohol consumption and cancer and steps people can take to help prevent those risks.

How can you lower your risk? If possible, avoid consuming alcohol. If you do drink, the American Cancer Society recommends no more than two alcoholic beverages per day for men and no more than one for women. Because a serving size varies by the type of alcoholic beverage, it’s important to know your drink.

If you are undergoing cancer treatment, be sure to talk to your doctor about your alcohol consumption. There may be certain times during treatment where you should refrain from consuming alcoholic beverages.

Learn more about cancer services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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