Which cancers are linked to alcohol?
While most people are aware of the immediate effects of drinking alcohol, we often don’t think about the longer term health risks. We’ve known for ages that low amounts of alcohol can reduce the risk of heart disease, but many people are surprised by the fact that alcohol increases the risk of cancer.
Drinking even just one drink a day can increase a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. In fact, the risk of breast cancer increases steadily with each extra drink per day1. Women who drink three or more drinks per day are 50% more likely to develop breast cancer2.
The less alcohol you drink, the lower your risk of cancer.
Experts in Alberta recently looked at how much cancer could be prevented by avoiding alcohol3. For individual cancer types, they found that:
- Colorectal Cancer:
- Alcohol is linked to up to about 12% of colorectal cancer cases. That’s about 236 cases in Alberta each year.
- Breast Cancer:
- Up to about 7% of breast cancer is linked to alcohol. So we could avoid about 150 cases of breast cancer in Alberta each year if women didn’t drink alcohol.
- Oral Cancer:
- Up to about 40% of oral cancers are linked to drinking alcohol. That’s equal to about 146 cases of oral cancer in Alberta each year.
- Esophageal Cancer:
- Up to about 20% of esophageal cancers, or 47 cases in Alberta each year, are linked to alcohol.
- Liver Cancer:
- Alcohol is linked to about 9% of liver cancer cases. That’s up to about 19 cases of liver cancer in Alberta each year.
- Laryngeal Cancer
- Up to about 25% of larynx cancers, or 19 cases each year, are linked to alcohol in Alberta.
Drinking alcohol is particularly harmful when combined with smoking, but even on its own, alcohol increases cancer risk.
Overall, alcohol is linked to up to about 4% of new cancer cases in Alberta.
How does drinking alcohol affect my risk of cancer?
Experts aren’t exactly sure how alcohol increases cancer risk, but it may lead to different cancers in different ways:
- The chemicals produced when the body breaks down alcohol may damage cells and cause cancer directly. Or, the chemicals produced might act as a solvent that allows other harmful chemicals from tobacco smoke—for example—to enter cells.
- Drinking alcohol causes more free radicals to be produced, and perhaps these free radicals damage cells and cause cancer.
- Alcohol may lower the body’s ability to absorb vitamin B6 (folate) from food. Low folate may increase the risk of breast and colorectal cancers.
- Alcohol boosts estrogen levels and estrogen can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
We know that the source of alcohol (e.g. beer, wine, spirits) does not seem to matter. Cancer risk is linked to the total amount of alcohol consumed from all sources.
How much alcohol is safe to drink?
The Canadian Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines take into account the heart health benefits of low levels of alcohol consumption and the risk of other health concerns including cancer. These Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines recommend that:
- Women should drink no more than 10 drinks a week and no more than two drinks a day most days.
- Men should drink no more than 15 drinks a week and no more than three drinks a day most days.
The scope of the health benefits from drinking alcohol is limited, and there are other ways to improve your heart health and reduce stress such as healthy eating and physical activity. It’s important to know that the risk of heart disease and stroke actually increases with heavier drinking.
If you want to reduce your risk of cancer, you should drink less than the Canadian Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking limits. The Canadian Cancer Society and many other groups committed to cancer prevention recommend:
- Not drinking at all.
- If consumed at all, alcoholic drinks should be limited to two drinks per day for men and one per day for women.
The recommended limit is lower for women because on average their body size is smaller and they tend to be more vulnerable to alcohol’s physical effects.
What else can limiting alcohol help me with?
Alcohol affects every organ in the body. Drinking less can help you avoid the following issues immediately:
- Acute alcohol poisoning
Limiting alcohol can help prevent many longer term health issues such as:
- Dementia and stroke
- Liver diseases
- High blood pressure
- Depression and anxiety
- Social problems including unemployment and problems with relationships
Alcoholic drinks can be surprisingly high in calories. Cutting down on the amount you drink can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, which in turn will help to further reduce your cancer risk.
Tips for limiting alcohol consumption
The Alberta results from the 2013 Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey showed that the vast majority (74.5%) of Albertans aged 15 and older reported consuming alcohol in the prior year. Of some concern, Albertans were more likely to exceed the Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines than Canadians as a whole - 17.2% of Albertans compared to 15.7% of Canadians exceeded the Canadian Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guideline limits.
Be aware that in recent years, serving sizes and the strength of some alcoholic drinks served in public places have increased. This makes it easier to drink more alcohol than the standard drink sizes would estimate.
Here are some tips from the Canadian Cancer Society and others for reducing your alcohol consumption:
- Plan ahead and set a limit on the amount you will drink.
- Opt for the smallest serving size. Avoid double measures or specials that are often encouraged as ‘better value’.
- Dilute alcoholic drinks, or choose low-calorie or low-alcohol alternatives. For example, opt for a white wine spritzer rather than a full glass of wine.
- Don’t drink alcohol when you are thirsty because you are likely to drink more. Have a glass of water or a non-alcoholic soft drink to quench your thirst before having an alcoholic drink.
- Keep at least a few days each week alcohol free.
- Avoid salty snacks such as potato chips or nuts while drinking alcohol. Salt makes you thirsty and more likely to drink quickly.
- Drink alcoholic beverages slowly and space out your drinks. Do not have more than two drinks in any three-hour span.
- Eat before and while you are drinking.
- Don’t use alcohol to cope with stress. Try a walk, a bath, reading a book or listening to some of your favourite music to help you relax.