Most people are aware that smoking causes cancer, but fewer people know that drinking to excess also contributes to it. Alcohol use accounts for the development of 6% of all cancers and is linked to 4% of cancer deaths in the U.S.
Exactly how alcohol affects the risk of getting cancer is not entirely understood by the medical community. The development of cancer depends on where the disease originates.
Drinking alcohol is connected to cancers in these organs:
- Colon and rectum
- Mouth, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), and esophagus
The more alcohol you consume, the greater the cancer risk. However, some types of cancer, such as breast cancer, can develop, even when you drink occasionally.
If you drink and smoke, the risk climbs substantially, especially when it comes to cancers of the pharynx, larynx, esophagus, and mouth. Imbibing alcohol and smoking inhibits your cell’s ability to repair damage.
More about some of the types of cancer caused by alcohol:
Liver Cancer: Long-term use of alcohol damages the liver. The resulting scars (cirrhosis) and inflammation raises the risk of cancer.
Colon and Rectal Cancer: Both men and women who drink will experience an increased risk of cancer of the colon and rectum, with men slightly more likely to develop these cancers.
Breast Cancer: In women, drinking even small amounts of alcohol raises the estrogen levels in the body, which increases cancer risk.
The type of alcohol served in alcoholic beverages is called ethanol. It is found in beers, liquors (distilled spirits), and wine. An alcoholic drink contains a certain percentage of ethanol. However, a “standard-sized” drink, whether it is 12 ounces of beer, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor, or 5 ounces of wine, contains about the same amount of the substance.
The amount of alcohol consumed over time–not the type of alcoholic drink itself–influences cancer risk. Most of the research confirms that it is the alcohol, not the other ingredients in the drink, that increases risk.
Alcohol acts as an irritant on the internal organs and tissues. This is especially true in the case of throat and mouth cancers. Alcohol-damaged cells often try to repair themselves. This can cause changes in the DNA – something that can lead to the development of cancer.
When alcohol enters the body, it converts to acetaldehyde, a chemical that damages the DNA inside of cells. The process has been shown to trigger cancer in lab animals over time.
Drinking alcohol also leads to oxidative stress. This causes cells to produce reactive molecules that hold oxygen. When this happens, it can lead to cell damage and, again, increase the chance of developing cancer.
When alcohol combines with cigarette smoke, it can access the digestive tract more easily. This explains why cancer can develop in areas of the body, such as the mouth or throat. In other cases, the consumption of alcohol can slow the breakdown of harmful chemicals, which makes it hard to eliminate the toxins.
Alcohol can affect the body’s absorption of certain nutrients, such as folate. Folate is a vitamin that keeps the body’s cells healthy. Low folate levels have been linked to cancers of the colon, rectum, and breasts.
The American Cancer Society advises against drinking alcohol in any form. In lieu of abstinence, the organization recommends that men limit their consumption to two drinks per day and women drink one libation daily.
Alcohol not only increases cancer risk but also can lead to other health problems, such as obesity or pancreatitis. If you want to cut down on the probability of getting cancer, abstaining from alcohol is a smart step to take.
About the Author
Scott H. Silverman has been fighting against addiction for almost 40 years. He is the author of The Opioid Epidemic and the CEO of Confidential Recovery, an outpatient rehab in San Diego.