alcohol and cancer risk

Last edited 10/2022 and last reviewed 10/2022

Cancer and alcohol

  • 4 - 6% of all new cancers in the UK in 2013 were caused by alcohol consumption

Following this review it is possible to say that:

  • drinking alcohol causes cancers of the mouth (oral cavity) and throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), gullet (oesophagus), large bowel (colorectum), liver and the female breast. Alcohol consumption probably also has a role in cancer of the pancreas

  • people who drink even low levels of alcohol have a greater risk of getting some cancers than people who do not drink alcohol

    • Even at low levels of alcohol intake, below 1.5 units per day (10.5 units per week), there is an increased risk of the following cancer types:
      • mouth and throat (oral cavity and pharynx)
      • gullet (oesophagus)
      • breast in women

    • At alcohol intakes above approximately 1.5 units per day (10.5 units per week), there is an increased risk of the following cancer types:
      • voice box (larynx)
      • large bowel (colorectum)

    • At high levels of alcohol intake, above approximately 6 units per day (42 units per week), there is an increased risk of the following cancer types:
      • liver
      • pancreas

    • risk of getting cancer increases the more alcohol a person drinks

    • risk of getting some alcohol-related cancers gradually decreases over time in people who stop drinking alcohol, but it can take many years for the risk to fall to levels similar to those in people who have never drunk alcohol. It is logical to assume that reducing alcohol consumption would also lead to a reduction in cancer risk

Globally, an estimated or 4.1% of all new cases of cancer in 2020 were attributable to alcohol consumption (2):

  • males accounted for 76.7% of total alcohol-attributable cancer cases, and cancers of the oesophagus, liver cases, and breast contributed the most cases
  • largest burden of alcohol-attributable cancers was represented by heavy drinking 46.7% cases and risky drinking 39.4% cases, whereas moderate drinking contributed 13.9% cases, and drinking up to 10 g per day contributed 5.6% cases

Alcohol cessation and cancer risk (3)

  • cohort study of 4,513,746 insured adults in Korea, those who increased their alcohol consumption had a higher risk for alcohol-related cancers and all cancers compared with those who had sustained levels of drinking, whereas those who reduced their alcohol consumption had a lower risk.
    • although an increased risk was observed temporarily after quitting drinking, no increased risk was observed when quitting was sustained
    • findings of this study suggest that drinking cessation and reduction should be reinforced for the prevention of cancer

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