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Alcohol and Health

The 7 Types of Cancer Caused By Alcohol

Published:
June 19, 2023
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31 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 19, 2023
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31 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 19, 2023
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31 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 19, 2023
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31 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 19, 2023
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31 min read

Cancer is scary — we don’t really like to think about it. And yet, each time we raise a glass for a toast, unwind with a frosty beer after a long day, or complement our meals with a smooth glass of wine, we might inadvertently be playing a dangerous game with our health. 

Research shows that even moderate alcohol use can increase our risk of various types of cancer. These claims might sound somewhat shocking, but they’re backed by solid scientific evidence — and these aren’t chances we want to take. Let's explore the seven types of cancer that have been scientifically linked to alcohol consumption.

Alcohol and Cancer: Behind the Scenes

While our body is a biological marvel, sometimes seemingly harmless habits can tweak its delicate balance, leading to bigger problems down the road. To make sense of how alcohol and cancer are connected, let's dive a bit deeper into what happens behind the scenes when we drink. 

  • Metabolizing alcohol. Metabolizing alcohol is a two-step process. Our liver breaks down alcohol into a chemical called acetaldehyde — a known carcinogen. While our bodies do their best to eliminate it, excessive drinking can allow this chemical to damage our DNA and proteins — the first step towards cancer.
  • Oxidative stress. Alcohol has been shown to increase oxidative stress in our bodies by producing chemically reactive molecules called free radicals, which can damage our body’s DNA, proteins, and fats, setting the stage for cancer.
  • Impairing absorption. A healthy diet is important, of course, but so is our body’s ability to absorb the nutrients we’re taking in. Alcohol can impair the body's ability to use and absorb various essential nutrients, such as vitamins A, B-complex, C, and D, as well as folate. Some of these nutrients play roles in DNA repair and maintenance, and without them, we are at higher risk of developing cancer.
  • Hormone levels. Alcohol can interfere with our hormone levels — a disruption that may trigger certain cancers.
  • Cell regeneration. Drinking can cause our bodies to regenerate cells more quickly than usual. While this might sound beneficial, it can boost the likelihood of errors that happen during DNA replication, increasing the risk of cancer.
  • Strengthening carcinogens. For those who smoke in addition to drinking, here's a heads-up: alcohol can act as a solvent, making it easier for harmful substances — such as those in tobacco — to penetrate our cells.

Now let’s look at the seven specific types of cancer linked to alcohol in more detail.

1. Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is one of the most talked-about types of cancer, primarily because of its high prevalence among women worldwide. But did you know that every daily drink can raise our risk of breast cancer by 7-10%? In addition to cell damage caused by acetaldehyde, there are some specific factors at play.

  • The estrogen connection. Alcohol can affect levels of estrogen — a crucial hormone responsible for the development and regulation of the female reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics. Elevated levels of estrogen over extended periods can increase the risk of breast cancer. 
  • Alcohol and gene expression. Some studies suggest that alcohol alters the way a woman's body metabolizes estrogen, leading to elevated levels in the blood. Moreover, alcohol might affect other hormones related to breast cancer, possibly by influencing the genes responsible for regulating hormone levels.
  • Folate absorption. Folate, a type of B-vitamin, plays a role in DNA synthesis and repair. Drinking can decrease folate levels by affecting how it’s absorbed and used by the body. The result? DNA repair mechanisms become damaged, potentially leading to the accumulation of mutations and an increased risk of breast cancer.

The risk associated with alcohol and breast cancer seems to be dose-dependent: the more alcohol a woman drinks over her lifetime, the higher her risk of developing breast cancer. However, even low to moderate drinking (such as a drink a day) can increase the odds.

Reduce your risk: Hormonal imbalances, particularly involving estrogen, play a role in breast cancer. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, avoiding hormone replacement therapy (or using it judiciously under medical guidance), and managing stress can help regulate hormone levels.

2. Liver Cancer

Liver cancer is one of the most common types of cancer worldwide, and alcohol plays a big part in it. The liver is a multitasker involved in many essential functions. It breaks down harmful substances — including alcohol — and converts food into energy. Alcohol can disrupt these operations, eventually leading to serious health problems.

The main culprit when it comes to liver cancer is one we’ve touched on before — acetaldehyde, a byproduct of the alcohol metabolizing process and a known carcinogen. Our bodies ultimately neutralize and eliminate acetaldehyde, but drinking to excess leads to acetaldehyde building up and damaging our liver cells, increasing the likelihood of abnormal cell growth.

The problem doesn’t end there, though. Excessive drinking can lead to fat accumulation in the liver, called alcoholic fatty liver disease. Over time, this can progress to alcoholic steatohepatitis (inflammation of the liver with concurrent fat accumulation). Persistent inflammation can lead to cirrhosis (as healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue) and, eventually, to liver cancer. This progression isn't immediate — and not everyone with alcohol-induced cirrhosis will develop liver cancer — but every drink takes us another step closer.

There are a few additional pathways through which regular drinking can set us on the path to liver cancer.

  • Impact on immunity. Alcohol can weaken the immune system, making it harder for the body to recognize and destroy cancer cells. A compromised immune system combined with liver damage amplifies the risk of liver cancer.
  • Oxidative stress. Alcohol boosts the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the liver, leading to oxidative stress. These ROS can damage DNA, proteins, and lipids in liver cells. Prolonged oxidative stress can cause inflammation and, eventually, contribute to the development of liver cancer.
  • Other contributing factors. Alcohol can exacerbate the harmful effects of other stressors that increase the burden on the liver. For example, people with hepatitis B or C infections are at an increased risk of liver cancer. 

While heavy drinking poses the most significant risk, even moderate alcohol consumption can contribute to liver cancer over time, especially if other risk factors are present. 

Reduce your risk: The good news is that the liver has an incredible capacity for regeneration. Curbing our drinking habits can halt further damage in many cases and allow the liver to repair itself. Moreover, regular liver enzyme checks and periodic liver ultrasounds can detect early changes, ensuring timely interventions.

3. Mouth and Throat Cancer

When we take a sip of a drink, our mouth and throat are the first in line. These tissues are directly exposed to alcohol, which can irritate and damage the cells lining the mouth and throat — eventually triggering changes that might lead to mouth and throat cancer

  • Nutritional deficiencies. Chronic drinking can lead to nutritional deficiencies, particularly of certain vitamins and minerals essential for maintaining the health of the oral cavity. For example, a deficiency in vitamin B can impair the mouth and throat's ability to repair DNA damage, potentially leading to cancer.
  • Oral hygiene and alcohol. Alcohol — especially spirits — can have a drying effect on the mouth. A dry mouth lacks adequate saliva, which plays a protective role by neutralizing acids and washing away harmful particles. Over time, reduced saliva can increase the risk of oral infections, further elevating cancer risks.
  • HPV and alcohol. Recent studies have identified a connection between the human papillomavirus (HPV) and oral cancers. While HPV is a significant risk factor on its own, alcohol can amplify it by weakening the immune system, which might make it easier for HPV to cause infections that lead to cancer.
  • Synergistic effect with tobacco. This synergy between alcohol and tobacco creates a highly potent carcinogenic cocktail. Alcohol can act as a solvent, making the oral tissues more permeable, allowing tobacco’s harmful chemicals to penetrate more easily.

Reduce your risk: Like all cancers, the prognosis for mouth and throat cancers is significantly better with early detection. Regular dental check-ups can help spot early signs. Being aware of symptoms such as persistent sores, lumps, or pain in the mouth can also lead to early intervention.

4. Esophageal Cancer

Alcohol can also lead to esophageal cancer. As we swallow our drink, alcohol comes into direct contact with the esophagus. This contact can lead to irritation and inflammation, causing damage to the esophageal cells. With frequent alcohol exposure, the body’s repair processes can go awry, causing DNA changes in the esophageal cells and potentially leading to esophageal cancer.

Two Main Types of Esophageal Cancer

There are two primary types of esophageal cancer, each with its own unique connection to alcohol.

  • Esophageal Squamous Cell Carcinoma (ESCC). This type of cancer originates in the cells that line the esophagus. Regular and heavy drinking significantly raises the risk for this type of cancer, particularly if we drink a lot over many years. 
  • Adenocarcinoma. Alcohol has the potential to relax the lower esophageal sphincter — the muscular gate between the esophagus and the stomach — which allows stomach acid to travel back into the esophagus, causing acid reflux. Chronic acid reflux, or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), can lead to Barrett's esophagus, a precursor to adenocarcinoma.
The Amplified Risk With Smoking 

Once again, combining smoking with drinking is like adding fuel to fire when it comes to esophageal cancer risk. Carcinogenic compounds in tobacco can drastically increase the likelihood of the disease when combined with the effects of alcohol.

Reduce your risk: Chronic acid reflux can increase the risk of esophageal cancer. If you suffer from frequent heartburn or GERD, ask your doctor about managing it and consider dietary and lifestyle changes to keep symptoms to a minimum.

5. Stomach Cancer

The stomach is kind of fascinating, full of acid that digests our food to be used as fuel. It nourishes us and protects us from the acid it contains. But alcohol can disrupt the stomach's protective lining, making it more susceptible to the harmful effects of its own digestive juices. This can lead to ulcers and gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining. Both conditions increase the risk of stomach cancer over time.

Chronic heavy drinking also affects the stomach’s balance of acids and enzymes, disrupting digestion and leading to nutritional deficiencies. In particular, alcohol impedes the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B12, folic acid, and iron. At the same time, alcohol's diuretic effect can lead to dehydration, which slows the removal of harmful substances from the stomach, prolonging their contact with the stomach lining.

Moreover, alcohol can disrupt the stomach’s balance of bacteria. A particular bacterium, Helicobacter pylori, has been linked to an increased risk of stomach cancer. While the relationship between alcohol and H. pylori isn't entirely clear, excessive drinking can create an environment in the stomach conducive to bacterial overgrowth.

Finally, alcohol can act as a solvent that allows other harmful chemicals — such as those from tobacco smoke or foods that are pickled, smoked, or preserved in salt — to penetrate the stomach lining, further increasing the risk.

Reduce your risk: Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and fibers while staying away from salty, smoked, or pickled foods. 

6. Colorectal Cancer

Alcohol's journey through our bodies doesn't end at the throat or stomach. It also impacts our colon and rectum, where it can increase the risk of colorectal cancer. As with other cancers we’ve discussed, alcohol's carcinogenic byproducts — including acetaldehyde — can damage DNA and proteins in our colon and rectum, leading to abnormal cell growth and, potentially, cancer. But that’s not the whole story!

  • Gut flora and alcohol. Our gut houses a complex bacterial ecosystem that aids digestion, supports our immune system, and performs other vital functions. Excessive alcohol can disrupt this microbiome balance, potentially leading to inflammation and an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Nutrient absorption. Chronic alcohol consumption can impact the colon's ability to absorb essential nutrients, particularly folic acid (which plays a pivotal role in DNA synthesis and repair). A deficiency can hinder the DNA repair process, increasing the likelihood of mutations and cancer.
  • Synergy with other risk factors. Combining alcohol with other colorectal cancer risk factors, like a diet high in red and processed meats, a sedentary lifestyle, or smoking, amplifies the overall risk.
  • Impact on immune surveillance. Alcohol can affect the immune system, weakening its ability to detect and destroy cancer cells. With reduced immune surveillance, the likelihood of cancerous growths going unchecked in the colon and rectum increases.

Reduce your risk: Colonoscopies and other screening methods can detect precancerous polyps and early-stage cancers. Regular check-ups, especially if you're above 50 or have a family history of the disease, are key!

7. Pancreatic Cancer

Finally, we come to pancreatic cancer. The pancreas is a vital organ with two primary roles: aiding digestion and regulating blood sugar. The connection between alcohol and pancreatic cancer, though not as direct as some other cancers, is real and worth examining.

Chronic alcohol consumption inflames the pancreas — a condition known as pancreatitis. Pancreatitis can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). While a single episode of acute pancreatitis might not dramatically increase the risk of cancer, recurrent episodes or a progression to chronic pancreatitis can. Over time, the persistent inflammation and cellular damage can result in DNA changes, creating a setting ripe for the development of cancerous cells.

The pancreas also helps produce insulin, which is crucial for regulating blood sugar. Chronic drinking can impair the pancreas's ability to secrete insulin properly, leading to conditions like diabetes. Diabetes is a recognized risk factor for pancreatic cancer.

Reduce your risk: Because of its silent nature, early detection of pancreatic cancer is tricky. Regular check-ups, especially if you have a history of pancreatitis or other risk factors, can be life-saving! Also, since obesity and a diet high in red and processed meats can increase the risk, aim for a balanced diet, rich in vegetables and whole grains, and engage in regular physical activity.

Alcohol causes 7 types of cancer

A Note on Xylitol

Given the connection between alcohol and cancer, some people wonder if other alcohol-containing products pose similar risks. What about Xylitol, a sugar alcohol? It’s used as a sugar substitute in a variety of products, including chewing gum, dental care items, and some baked goods. Its popularity stems from its low caloric content and dental benefits, as xylitol has been shown to reduce the risk of cavities. But what about its link to cancer?

Here’s good news: there’s no direct scientific evidence linking xylitol to an increased risk of cancer. Most studies on xylitol have primarily focused on its effects on dental health, metabolism, and its potential role in diabetes management. Some studies also suggest that xylitol can help improve bone density and might have a protective effect against osteoporosis. 

Taking Charge

As we can see, alcohol can do some serious damage to our bodies, and its link to different types of cancers is one we can’t afford to ignore. Here's the silver lining: we have the power to lower our risk of all 7 types of cancer caused by alcohol with some simple, concrete steps.

  • Set drinking limits. A good first step is to set limits on how much we drink. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
  • Have alcohol-free days. Declare certain days of the week alcohol-free. This helps break the routine of daily drinking and makes cutting back a little easier.
  • Choose alcohol-free alternatives. So many great non-alcoholic alternatives are available these days! From alcohol-free beers and wines to fancy mocktails, we can still enjoy a tasty drink without the alcohol.
  • Get active. We all know exercise is good for us, but one way it helps is that it can reduce our risk of several types of cancer. Plus, it's a great way to distract ourselves if we're feeling the urge to drink.
  • Ask for support. Remember, it's okay to ask for help, and we're not in this alone. Support groups, counseling services, and healthcare providers can provide guidance and support. 
  • Regular check-ups. Regular physical check-ups can catch potential issues early. If you’re worried about drinking’s effects, it's a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider.

Summing Up

While moderation is key, it's also essential to understand that “moderation” varies for everyone based on factors like genetics, overall health, and lifestyle. It's always a good idea to touch base with healthcare professionals to understand what's right for our unique body and circumstances.

The important thing is, every step we take towards reducing our alcohol intake is a victory. It's not about doing it perfectly—it's about making progress.

Summary FAQs

1. Does alcohol really increase the risk of cancer?

Yes, even moderate alcohol use has been scientifically linked to an increased risk of various types of cancer, including breast, liver, mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, colorectal, and pancreatic cancer.

2. How does alcohol consumption relate to breast cancer?

Alcohol can elevate estrogen levels, a hormone that can stimulate the growth of some breast cancer cells. Every daily drink might raise the risk of breast cancer by 7-10%.

3. Why is alcohol harmful to the liver and its relation to liver cancer?

Alcohol can disrupt the liver's essential functions and lead to the buildup of acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Chronic drinking can cause alcoholic liver disease or cirrhosis, where healthy liver tissue turns into scar tissue, eventually leading to liver cancer.

4. How does alcohol increase the risk of mouth and throat cancer?

Alcohol can damage cells in the mouth and throat, potentially leading to cancer. Deficiencies in a B-vitamin known as folate, caused by alcohol, also play a role in increasing the risk.

5. Can drinking alcohol lead to stomach cancer?

Yes, alcohol disrupts the stomach's protective lining, making it vulnerable to its digestive juices, which can lead to ulcers, gastritis, and eventually increase the risk of stomach cancer.

6. What's the connection between alcohol and colorectal cancer?

Alcohol's carcinogenic byproducts, such as acetaldehyde, can damage the DNA and proteins in the colon and rectum, leading to abnormal cell growth and potentially cancer.

7. Is it true that drinking can lead to pancreatic cancer?

While the link isn't as direct, chronic alcohol consumption can cause pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. Over time, this can lead to DNA changes, abnormal cell growth, and potentially pancreatic cancer.

Ready To Take Charge of Your Health and Change Your Relationship With Alcohol? Reframe Is Here To Help!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

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And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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