Substance Use

How Alcohol Use Increases Your Risk Factors Of Cancer

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Alcohol, in a general sense, refers to a class of organic compounds characterized by the presence of a hydroxyl (-OH) group attached to a carbon atom. (1) However, when we commonly talk about “alcohol,” we often mean ethanol or ethyl alcohol, which is a specific type of alcohol used for various purposes, including as a recreational beverage.

Ethanol is a colorless, flammable liquid produced by yeast or bacteria fermentation of sugars. It is commonly found in alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, and spirits. (2) When consumed, ethanol has psychoactive effects on the human body, resulting in feelings of relaxation, altered perception, impaired coordination, and reduced inhibitions.

Alcohol consumption significantly increases the risk of developing several types of cancer. The relationship between alcohol and cancer is complex, involving various mechanisms that influence cell growth, DNA damage, and the immune system.

While it might be overly simplistic to assert that alcohol directly causes cancer, the evidence indicates a strong correlation between pure alcohol consumption and an elevated risk of certain cancers.

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The Broad Risks of Drinking

According to MedlinePlus, engaging in excessive alcohol consumption poses a range of hazards that extend beyond immediate consequences. (3) It is very important to be well aware of these risks in order to make informed decisions about alcohol consumption. 

Alcohol affects some types of cancer and can bring other risks including the following:

  1. Injuries and Accidents: Excessive alcohol consumption significantly increases the likelihood of sustaining injuries, whether through accidents or other mishaps. This heightened vulnerability to harm increases the risk of being involved in vehicular accidents.
  2. Alcohol Poisoning: Consuming large quantities of alcohol in a short period can lead to alcohol poisoning, a serious and potentially life-threatening condition. Symptoms include confusion, vomiting, seizures, slow or irregular breathing, and hypothermia. (4)
  3. Violent Behavior: Alcohol has been known to act as a catalyst for aggressive and violent behavior. Individuals under the influence may be more prone to engage in confrontations or become victims of violence.
  4. Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) or Alcoholism: Prolonged and heavy alcohol use increases the risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD) or progressing to full-fledged alcoholism. These conditions not only impact mental health but also contribute to significant social and economic burdens. (5)
  5. Liver Damage: Chronic alcohol abuse takes a toll on the liver, leading to conditions such as cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. The liver’s vital functions are compromised, posing long-term health risks.
  6. Tumors: Excessive alcohol consumption has been associated with an increased risk of developing tumors, emphasizing the carcinogenic potential of prolonged alcohol abuse.
  7. Cardiovascular Disease: Prolonged heavy drinking is linked to an elevated risk of cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension and cardiomyopathy. These conditions pose substantial threats to heart health.
  8. Increased Risk of Injuries: The impaired judgment and compromised motor skills resulting from alcohol consumption contribute to an overall heightened risk of sustaining injuries, whether accidental or otherwise.

In light of these comprehensive risks, individuals need to be aware of the potential consequences of excessive alcohol intake. Practicing moderation and promoting responsible drinking habits are crucial steps in safeguarding both physical and mental well-being.

The Science Behind Cancer and Alcohol Consumption

Alcoholic drinks, including beer, liquor, white wine, sparkling wine, and red wine—you name it—are known carcinogens, meaning they can cause cancer. (6)

According to the National Cancer Institute, the cancer research findings are clear. There is an alcohol and cancer risk the more one drinks. The more alcohol someone consumes, especially if it’s regular and over an extended period, the greater their risk of cancer-related to alcohol use.

Even modest drinking, defined as one drink or less per day, has been linked to a slightly increased risk of certain types of cancer.

Different Types of Cancer Linked to Alcohol

The National Cancer Institute also states that alcohol is linked to these cancer types: (7)

  • Head and neck cancer: Moderate to heavy alcohol consumption has been linked to an increased risk for certain head and neck cancers, including cancer of the pharynx (throat) and larynx (voice box). Those who consume a large amount of alcohol and smoke are at much higher risk for developing these types of cancers. (8)
  • Esophageal cancer: Alcohol is linked to an increased risk of developing esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, a type of cancer that occurs in the esophagus (throat or food pipe). The dangers of drinking alcohol, compared to not consuming any at all, can range from a 1.3 times higher risk for light drinkers to a 5-fold greater danger for heavy drinkers. (9)
  • Liver cancer: Regular, heavy alcohol consumption roughly doubles the risk of developing two types of liver cancer.
  • Breast cancer: Research has found an increased risk of breast cancer with alcohol intake. Light drinkers have a slightly elevated breast cancer risk. Moderate drinkers and heavy drinkers have a greater risk of danger. (10)
  • Colorectal cancer: People who consume moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol are at higher risk for developing cancers of the colon and rectum. This increased risk is about 1.2-1.5 times greater than that experienced by non-drinkers. (11)

Extensive research has been conducted about cancer to determine whether binge drinking or moderate drinking increases the risk of other types of cancer.

Little or inconsistent evidence exists about the connection between alcohol consumption and common cancers of the:

  • Ovary
  • Prostate
  • Stomach
  • Uterus
  • Bladder

However, research suggests alcohol consumption may increase the risk of developing a cancer diagnosis, such as melanoma, prostate cancer, or pancreatic cancer.

Drinking Patterns and Risk of Cancer

Alcoholic drinks, including beer, liquor, white wine, sparkling wine, and red wine—you name it—are known carcinogens, meaning they can cause cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the cancer research findings are clear. The more alcohol someone consumes, especially if it’s regular and over an extended period, the greater their risk of cancer related to alcohol use.

Even a standard drink or normal drinking, defined as one drink or less per day, has been linked to a slightly increased risk of certain types of cancer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that the leading risk factors for preventable cancers are:

  • Smoking
  • Excess UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Excessive alcohol consumption

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines heavy drinking as: (12)

  • Consuming more than three drinks on any day or more than seven drinks per week for women
  • Consuming more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week for men

Public health cancer prevention strategies and some cancer treatments focus on reducing cancer deaths by asking people to:

  • Drink in moderation
  • Avoid tobacco
  • Do at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get regular cancer screenings when appropriate

Reducing the risk of alcohol-related cancers and alcohol effects, in general, involves adopting mindful and strategic lifestyle choices.

Here are practical tips to minimize alcohol intake and promote health benefits:

  1. Moderation is Key: Limit alcohol consumption by adhering to recommended guidelines. For example, women should generally not exceed one drink per day, while men should aim for no more than two drinks per day. Keep in mind that moderation is not possible for those with alcohol use disorder, and most need help to quit,
  2. Choose Non-Alcoholic Alternatives: Opt for non-alcoholic beverages during social events or when winding down. This not only reduces alcohol intake but also helps in staying hydrated.
  3. Designate Alcohol-Free Days: Incorporate alcohol-free days into your weekly routine. This allows the body time to recover and reduces the cumulative impact of alcohol on health.
  4. Healthy Eating Habits: Adopt a balanced and nutritious diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. A diet high in antioxidants supports overall health and may help counteract some of the negative effects of alcohol.
  5. Regular Exercise: Engage in regular physical activity. Exercise has been linked to a reduced risk of certain cancers and contributes to overall well-being.
  6. Regular Health Check-ups: Schedule regular health check-ups and screenings. Early detection and intervention can be crucial in managing health risks associated with alcohol consumption.
  7. Seek Professional Support: If struggling with alcohol consumption, consider seeking professional help or joining support groups. Accessing appropriate resources can provide tailored strategies for reducing and managing alcohol intake.

By incorporating these tips into their daily lives, people can proactively reduce the risk of alcohol-related cancer cases and contribute to their overall well-being.

Debunking Myths: Is It Ever Safe to Drink Alcohol?

According to the CDC, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults of legal drinking age should abstain from alcohol or practice moderation.

Men should limit alcohol to two drinks a day at most, and women should have no more than one drink per day. (13)

People who should refrain from consuming any alcoholic beverages, according to the guidelines, include:

  • Those who are pregnant or might be pregnant
  • Children and young people under the age of 21
  • Those with certain medical conditions, such as liver or pancreatic disease
  • Those recovering from alcohol use disorder (AUD) or anyone who cannot control their drinking

Identifying and Addressing Alcohol Use Disorder

How much or how often a person drinks doesn’t always indicate a drinking problem, according to MedlinePlus. What really matters is the impact that alcohol has on people’s lives and well-being.

You may have a drinking problem if you:

  • Regularly drink more than you intend to drink
  • Cannot cut back
  • Devote a great deal of time to getting, consuming, or recuperating from the repercussions of alcohol
  • Struggle to maintain relationships and responsibilities because of alcohol use
  • Neglect work, academic, or social engagements due to alcohol consumption

If you’ve developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, talk to your healthcare provider about treatment options.

These include:

  • Counseling: Counseling helps you understand the issues that have contributed to your drinking, provides techniques to help cope with cravings, and helps you create a plan for healthier living.
  • Medications: Doctors may prescribe medications, such as naltrexone or acamprosate, to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
  • Detoxification: Detoxification is necessary to rid the body of alcohol and other drugs. A medical professional closely monitors your health during this process. (14)
  • Inpatient Rehab: Inpatient rehab programs provide a safe, structured environment for individuals to detoxify and receive comprehensive treatment.
  • Outpatient Rehab: Outpatient rehab gives you the flexibility to continue work, school, or other responsibilities while receiving help for your addiction.
  • Group Therapy: Group therapy sessions can help determine how to combat sobriety best. They also can provide support from fellow recovering individuals and give you the motivation to stay sober.

Support and Treatment Options at Zinnia Health

The recognition of alcohol as a major risk factor for cancer emphasizes the need for public health awareness and educational initiatives. Informed decision-making involves acknowledging the interconnectedness of lifestyle choices, such as smoking and diet, with alcohol-related cancer risks.

While complete abstinence is the safest route, moderation in alcohol consumption and consideration of overall lifestyle factors contribute to reducing cancer risks.

Are you struggling with an addiction to alcohol? Zinnia Health is here to provide detoxification, inpatient, and outpatient care depending on your unique situation. Call our alcoholism helpline 24/7 at (855) 430-9439 today. Our compassionate addiction specialists are ready to answer your questions and help you get the support you need to live a long and healthy life.


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(855) 430-9439
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