Alcohol and cancer risk
Alcohol causes cancer and the more we drink the greater our risk of alcohol-related cancer.
900 people in Ireland are diagnosed with alcohol-related cancers and around 500 people die from these diseases every year.¹
How does alcohol increase the risk of cancer?
Alcohol increases the risk of cancer in a number of different ways. Alcohol is a carcinogen – that means it causes cancer. Alcohol is converted in our bodies into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. This can cause cancer by damaging our DNA and stopping cells from repairing the damage. Alcohol can also increase the levels of some hormones, such as oestrogen, which particularly increases the risk of breast cancer.
What types of cancer are caused by alcohol?
Alcohol is known to cause 7 types of cancer:
- Upper throat
Alcohol is also likely to cause cancer of the pancreas and stomach cancer.
Image credit: Cancer Research UK.
The number of new cases of alcohol-related cancers in Ireland is expected to double by 2020.²
Over half the alcohol related cancers in Ireland could be prevented by sticking to the low-risk drinking guidelines.³
How much alcohol increases my risk of cancer?
People are more likely to get cancer if they drink a lot of alcohol, whether they drink it in one go or spread the same amount over a long period. How much alcohol increases your risk depends on the type of cancer. For breast cancer4 and for parts of the body that come into direct contact with the alcohol – the mouth, throat, voicebox (larynx) and oesophagus – even light regular drinking increases the risk. Heavy drinking increases the risk for all the cancers caused by alcohol.
Alcohol is responsible for 1 in 8 breast cancers in Ireland
Alcohol, smoking and cancer
If you smoke as well as drink alcohol, your risk of certain cancers is even higher. Cigarette smoke contains over 70 cancer-causing chemicals. Alcohol makes it easier for these harmful chemicals to enter the cells lining the mouth, throat, larynx (voicebox) and oesophagus (foodpipe), greatly increasing the risk of cancer developing there.
Avoiding cigarettes and alcohol could prevent 70% of oral cancer cases5 and 90% of larynx cancers.6
Video: Alcohol and digestive cancers
What can I do to reduce my risk?
Alcohol is a modifiable risk factor. That means it's a risk factor that we can do something about.
- Stay within low-risk drinking guidelines:
Alcohol is one of the most preventable causes of cancer after smoking. Staying within low-risk drinking guidelines will reduce your risk of most alcohol-related cancers.
- Cut down or quit smoking:
For a number of cancers you have an even higher risk if you smoke and drink. Visit quit.ie or Freephone 1800 201 203 for help and support if you are thinking of quitting.
- Go to your GP if you have any unusual or unexplained changes in your body:
If you do develop cancer, spotting it early means it is easier to treat successfully.
Alcohol and tobacco together are thought to account for more than 7 out of 10 cases of mouth cancer in Europe5
1 Laffoy M., Mc Carthy T., Mullen L., Byrne D., Martin J., Cancer Incidence and Mortality due to Alcohol: An Analysis of 10-Year Data; Ir Med J. 2013; 106 (10) 294-297.
3 Laffoy M., Mc Carthy T., Mullen L., Byrne D., Martin J., Cancer Incidence and Mortality due to Alcohol: An Analysis of 10-Year Data; Ir Med J. 2013; 106 (10) 294-297.
4 Seitz, H., et al. Epidemiology and pathophysiology of alcohol and breast cancer: Update 2012. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 2012.
Allen, N.E., Beral, V., Casabonne, D., Kan, S.W., Reeves, G.K., Brown, A. and Green, J., 2009. Moderate alcohol intake and cancer incidence in women. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 101(5), pp.296-305.
Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer, 2002. Alcohol, tobacco and breast cancer–collaborative reanalysis of individual data from 53 epidemiological studies, including 58 515 women with breast cancer and 95 067 women without the disease. British journal of cancer, 87(11), p.1234.
5 Laffoy M., Mc Carthy T., Mullen L., Byrne D., Martin J., Cancer Incidence and Mortality due to Alcohol: An Analysis of 10-Year Data; Ir Med J. 2013; 106 (10) 294-297.