Drinking Alcohol and Cancer Risk

by David J. Hanson, Ph. D.

Drinking alcohol, especially along with smoking, increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx and larynx.1 Fortunately, these cancers are all very rare, accounting in total for only 1% of all cancer deaths in the U.S.2

The moderate consumption of alcohol doesn't increase the risk of the most common cancers, except possibly for the inconclusive cases of breast cancer and colorectal cancer, as listed by the National Cancer Institute3 alphabetically:

Of these 12 most common cancers, the risk of two (kidney cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma) are reduced by consuming alcohol in moderation.

Kidney Cancer

Drinking reduces the risk of kidney cancer. For example:

Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma

Alcohol reduces the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. For example:

Hodgkin's Lymphoma

The consumption of alcohol also reduces the risk of Hodgkin's lymphoma. For example:

Not only does drinking alcoholic beverages reduce the risk of Hodgkin lymphoma, but a common symptom of the disease is pain in the lymph nodes. This is reduced following the consumption of alcohol.31

Thyroid Cancer

Drinking alcohol also reduces the risk of developing thyroid cancer. For example:

The Alcohol and Breast Cancer Debate

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has conducted an exhaustive analysis of the scientific medical evidence regarding alcohol and breast cancer. It concludes that "The effect of alcohol on the risk for breast cancer remains controversial" and describes it as "inconclusive." 36 Consistent with this conclusion, the National Cancer Institute does not include alcohol consumption as a risk factor in its Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool. 37

Some studies find a relationship between alcohol and increased risk of breast cancer, others find no relationship, and still others find that alcohol reduces the risk of breast cancer. See Alcohol and Breast Cancer.

It appears that drinking alcohol increases the risk of invasive ductal carcinoma, a major form of breast cancer. However, it does not increase the risk of:

Fortunately, it appears that the consumption of adequate folate folic acid or vitamin B9) may reduce or even eliminate any increased risk of breast cancer that might be caused by drinking alcohol.52

The overall risk of breast cancer is low. "A typical 50-year-old woman has a five-year breast cancer risk of about 3 percent. If her risk jumps by 30 percent, her individual risk is still only about 4 percent."53 The risk of dying from heart disease is about twelve times greater than dying from breast cancer among women in the U.S.

Because the moderate consumption of alcohol reduces the risk of dying from heart disease by as much as over half, the National Cancer Institute recommends that women discuss with their doctors whether or not to reduce their consumption of alcohol.

Alcohol and Colorectal Cancer

There's a lack of medical consensus about whether or not alcohol consumption is a risk factor for colorectal cancer. The National Cancer Institute,54 the National Library of Medicine,55 the American Society of Clinical Oncology,56 the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center,57 and Cancer Research58 have concluded that alcohol is not a risk factor.

Alternatively, the American Cancer Society,59 the Mayo Clinic,60 and the Colorectal Cancer Coalition61 suggest that "heavy use" or "heavy drinking" may increase the odds of the disease.

Alcohol and Liver Cancer

Alcohol consumption is not listed as a risk factor for liver cancer by the American Cancer Society62 and the American Society of Clinical Oncologists,63 but is listed by the Mayo Clinic ("excessive alcohol consumption")64 and About.com. ("excessive, long-term alcohol use").65

The reason for the difference in considering whether or not alcohol is a risk factor is that alcohol itself doesn't cause liver cancer. However, heavy and abusive alcohol consumption over a period of many years is one of the causes of alcohol cirrhosis (along with hepatitis B and hepatitis C virus). It is the liver cirrhosis itself that is one of the risk factors for liver cancer.

The usual setting is an individual with alcoholic cirrhosis who has stopped drinking for ten years, and then develops liver cancer. It is somewhat unusual for an actively drinking alcoholic to develop liver cancer. What happens is that when the drinking is stopped, the liver cells try to heal by regenerating (reproducing). It is during this active regeneration that a cancer-producing genetic change (mutation) can occur, which explains the occurrence of liver cancer after the drinking has been stopped.66

Alcohol is Not Considered a Risk Factor for any of the following Cancers

There is medical consensus, based on the totality of scientific evidence, that alcohol is not a risk factor for any of the following cancers, which are listed below alphabetically.

Drinking alcohol is not a risk factor for developing most cancers. On the other hand, the moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with better health and greater longevity than is either abstaining from alcohol or drinking abusively.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has recommended that a man consume no more than four drinks on any day and no more than an average of 14 drinks per week. For women, it recommends no more than three drinks in any one day and an average of no more than seven drinks per week.

Standard Drinks

Standard Drinks graphically illustrates information on the equivalence of standard drinks of beer, wine and distilled spirits or liquor.

A standard alcoholic drink is:

Standard drinks contain equivalent amounts of alcohol. To a breathalyzer, they're all the same.

There is no evidence that any form of alcohol (beer, wine, or liquor - distilled spirits) confers greater health benefits than an other.

Nothing on this page constitutes medical opinion or advice. For medical diagnosis, opinion, advice or treatment consult a qualified physician.

Readings on Alcohol as a Risk Factor for Cancer:

  • (listing does not imply endorsement)
  • Allen, Naomi E., et al. Moderate alcohol intake and cancer incidence in women. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2009, 101(5), 296-305.
  • Bagnardi., A., et al. A meta-analysis of alcohol drinking and cancer risk. British Journal of Cancer, 2001, 85(11), 1700-1705.
  • Bofetta, P. and Hashibe, M. Alcohol and cancer. The Lancet (oncology), 2006, 7(2), 149-156.
  • Bofetta, P., et al. The burden of cancer attributable to alcohol drinking. International Journal of Cancer/Journal International du Cancer, 2006. 119(4), 884-887.
  • Breimer, L. H. and Theobald, H. Re: Moderate alcohol intake and cancer incidence in women. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2009, 101(15), 1093.
  • Cho, C.H. and Purohit, V. Alcohol, Tobacco and Cancer. Basel & New York: Karger, 2006.
  • Hamnpton, T. Alcohol and cancer. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 2005, 294(12), 1481.
  • Hausdorf, K., et al. Prevalence and correlates of multiple cancer risk behaviors in an Australian population-based survey: results from the Queensland Cancer Risk Study. Cancer Causes and Control, 2008, 19(10), 1339-1347.
  • Homann, N. and Seitz, H. K. Alcohol's effect on the development and progression of cancer. Nutrition in Clinical Care, 2000, 3(2), 83-89.
  • Inoue, M., et al. Alcohol drinking and total cancer risk: an evaluation based on a systematic review of epidemiologic evidence among the Japanese population. Japanese Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2007, 37(9), 692-700.
  • Lewis, S. Alcohol as a Cause of Cancer. Eveleigh, N.S.W., Australia: Cancer Institute NSW, 2008.
  • McPherson, K. Moderate alcohol consumption and cancer. Annals of Epidemiology, 2007, 17(5), S46-S48.
  • Poschi, G. and Seitz, H.K. Alcohol and cancer. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 2004, 39(3), 155-165.
  • Seitz, H.K. and Becker, P. Alcohol metabolism and cancer risk. Alcohol Research & Health, 2007, 30(1), 38-47.
  • Wang, Xiang-Dong. Alcohol, vitamin A, and cancer. Alcohol, 2005, 35(3), 251.

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