“In similar fashion, when I was suffering from work, I binged on alcohol and food. When I went out, I couldn’t have just one or two drinks—I’d have five, six, or seven. My whole life was a binge.”p. 56, From Doctor to Patient
Did you know drinking alcohol, even a couple drinks a week, can increase your risk for cancer? If not, you’re not alone – approximately 70% of Americans don’t know about this risk (Ratini, 2018). According to a study published in the International Journal of Cancer, 3.5% of all cancer deaths can be attributed to alcohol drinking (Boffetta et al., 2006). Research has shown that there is an association between alcohol drinking and breast, mouth/throat, laryngeal, esophageal, liver, and colon/rectum cancers (Boffetta & Hashibe, 2006). Here’s what current research tells us about the association between alcohol consumption and these 6 types of cancers:
Boffetta et al. showed that a whopping 60% of female breast cancer diagnoses can be attributed to alcohol drinking (2006). Compared to women who don’t drink at all, women who have one drink per day are at an 11% increased risk of developing breast cancer (Longnecker, 2008). When increasing consumption to one to two drinks per day, breast cancer risk jumps to 30-50% higher than non-drinkers (Terry et al., 2006). Limiting alcohol consumption is especially important for women at elevated risk for breast cancer such as those with family history of breast cancer and women who are overweight.
Mouth and throat cancers
People who drink alcohol are six times more likely to develop mouth or throat cancer than non-drinkers (Bonevski et al, 2014). Likewise, people who smoke are seven times more likely to develop mouth or throat cancer than non-smokers (Bonevski et al, 2014). However, the cancerous effects of smoking and drinking are amplified when used together – people who smoke AND drink are 38 times more likely to develop throat or mouth cancer in their lifetime (Bonevski et al, 2014).
Laryngeal (voicebox) cancer
For non-smoking heavy drinkers, the risk of developing laryngeal cancer is over twice as high as people who don’t drink heavily or smoke (Bosetti et al., 2002). However, it appears that there is minimal risk of developing laryngeal cancer from low to moderate alcohol consumption, as long as you do not smoke as well (Altieri et al., 2005).
Esophageal (food pipe) cancer
Unlike with laryngeal cancer, any amount of alcohol consumption is associated with a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer, although risk increases with higher alcohol use. For light drinkers, risk of laryngeal cancer is 1.3 times higher than that of non-drinkers (LoConte et al., 2018). For heavy drinkers, on the other hand, risk of developing esophageal cancer is five times higher than that of non- or occasional drinkers (Bagnardi et al., 2015).
Unsurprisingly, liver cancer is associated with alcohol use, as the liver is responsible for processing alcohol in the body. Chronic alcohol use increases risk of liver cancer by 5-fold (Grewal & Viswanathen, 2012). Consuming three or more drinks per day substantially increases the risk of developing liver cancer (Turati et al., 2014). However, an association between low to moderate drinking and liver cancer has yet to be established (Turati et al., 2014).
Compared to people who do not drink at all, those who drink more than one drink per day are at an increased risk for colorectal cancer. Risk is 1.2 times higher among moderate drinkers and 1.5 times higher among heavy drinkers (Fedirko et al., 2011). Risk is further increased among men and people of Asian descent (Fedirko et al., 2011).
Along with other general negative health effects of alcohol consumption (i.e., weight gain, etc.), you can now add the increased risk of cancer to the list. As with most things, the key to drinking is moderation. An occasional drink is unlikely to be a health risk; however, drinking 1-2 drinks every day may be. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that women drink no more than one drink per day, and men limit daily consumption to two drinks. However, we hope the current research presented in this article will convince you to keep your alcohol consumption even below the ACS’s recommendations.