Alcohol and Cancer

The way alcohol affects the risk of developing cancer is not fully understood yet.

Drinking alcohol raises the risk of several cancers in men and women:

  • Mouth (oral) and throat (pharynx)
  • Voice box (larynx)
  • Esophagus (food tube)
  • Liver
  • Rectum
  • Breast cancer in women

Researchers know alcohol harms cells. It is this damage that causes cancer.

Alcohol drains vitamin A and selenium from your body. These two vitamins may have a protective effect against cancer. Alcohol also lowers the body’s ability to fight off cancer by hurting the immune system. Alcohol can irritate the inside of internal organs like the stomach or bladder.

In general the risk of cancer rises after two drinks a day for males and one drink per day for women. It does not matter what type of alcohol you drink, only the amount. One drink equals:

  • 12 ounces of beer, or
  • 5 ounces of wine, or
  • 1.5 ounces (1 shot) of 80 proof liquor

For the average woman, one drink a day could raise her risk of getting breast cancer. This risk rises from one in eight (12.5%) to one in seven (14.25%)[ACS 2002].

The chances of getting liver cancer go up a lot with five or more drinks per day [NCI 2007 Cancer Trends Progress Report]. Heavy drinking may raise the risk of colon or rectal cancers. It can also lead to greater increases in risk for most cancers linked to alcohol use. The younger people start drinking heavily, the greater the cancer risk.

Someone who uses tobacco and alcohol will be at a higher risk of getting cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, and esophagus.

UI Cancer Information Services