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How does drinking alcohol impact your cancer risk?

Note: This post is written by the team of The ONE Group (Oncology – Nutrition – Exercise) at Penn State College of Medicine as part of a first-person blog about their work. Learn more about the group here.

Drinking alcohol is a common way to socialize with friends and family. You may also pour a glass of wine or open a bottle of beer to relax after a long day. Indeed, more than 50% of adults in the United States drink alcohol. You often hear newscasters stating that red wine is “heart healthy,” but how does drinking alcohol affect cancer risk?

Does drinking alcohol impact cancer risk?

Alcohol is a well-known carcinogen that increases the risk of cancer and cancer recurrence. Overall, 5.6% of cancer cases and 4% of cancer deaths in the United State are due to drinking alcohol. Strong evidence shows that alcohol increases the risk of several types of cancer, including:

  • Head and neck cancers – 40% to 500% increased risk
  • Esophageal cancer – 30% to 500% increased risk
  • Colorectal cancer – 20% to 50% increased risk
  • Liver cancer – 60% to 200% increased risk
  • Breast cancer – 4% to 60% increased risk

Drinking alcohol may also increase the risk other cancers. These include skin, prostate, pancreatic, stomach, lung, gallbladder and ovarian cancers.

How does alcohol affect cancer risk?

When you drink alcohol, the body prioritizes breaking down alcohol to get rid of it quickly as possible. Breaking down alcohol creates toxic chemicals. Prioritizing alcohol also means that the body cannot properly breakdown and absorb essential nutrients. This results in alcohol increasing cancer risk by:

  • Damaging DNA, proteins, and fats in the body.
  • Decreasing the availability of essential nutrients that can protect against cancer, like vitamins A, C, D, E and the B vitamins. This also impacts other non-vitamin compounds like carotenoids.
  • Increasing estrogen levels in the blood.

Many alcoholic beverages also contain other cancer-causing chemicals. These additional chemicals result in more damage to the body and worsen the effects of alcohol on cancer risk.

How much alcohol is too much?

The effect of alcohol on cancer risk changes based on how much you drink. The more alcohol a person drinks, the higher their cancer risk. Unfortunately, the bottom line is that even drinking small amounts of alcohol increases cancer risk. If you do not already drink alcohol, you should not start drinking alcohol. If you do drink alcohol, the recommendation is to drink in moderation.

The definition of drinking in moderation is different for men and women. For men who already drink, this means drinking 2 or fewer drinks per day. For women who already drink, this means drinking 1 or fewer drinks per day.

The definition of 1 drink is different based on the type of alcohol:

  • 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol)
  • 8-9 ounces of malt liquor or craft beer (7% alcohol)
  • 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled alcohol – rum, gin, whiskey, etc. (40% alcohol)
  • 12 ounces of hard seltzer (5% alcohol)

It is easy to consume too much alcohol. Standard pint glasses in U.S. bars hold 16 ounces – that is more than a true single serving of beer. Large wine glasses also make it easy to pour extra. So, keep an eye out for large glass sizes to help you avoid unintentionally consuming extra alcohol.

What if I am currently undergoing cancer treatment?

Drinking alcohol during cancer treatment can lengthen to time it takes to recover from treatment. It can also increase the number of surgical procedures and costs for cancer treatment. As always, it is best to talk with your doctor responsible for your treatment because they can give you specific information about whether it is safe to drink alcohol while undergoing treatment.

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