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The Link Between Alcohol and Cancer

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

February 7, 2024

Table of Contents

Alcohol, a common yet potentially harmful substance, is linked to seven different types of cancer. The fundamental issue lies not in the type of alcoholic beverage but in alcohol itself, which inflicts damage on the body regardless of its form. 

While alcohol consumption and cancer are linked, consuming alcohol doesn’t guarantee a cancer diagnosis. The risk escalates with increased consumption, though. It’s a widespread misconception that certain alcoholic drinks are less harmful than others. All forms of alcohol heighten cancer risk due to the inherent properties of alcohol.

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Reducing your alcohol intake is a proactive step toward minimizing your cancer risk. Beyond cancer prevention, cutting back on alcohol offers many other health advantages, including lowering the chances of accidents, high blood pressure, and liver disease. Understanding the impact of alcohol on your health is the first step toward making more informed choices for a healthier future.

Can Alcohol Cause Cancer?

The issue of cancer due to alcohol is nuanced, with several mechanisms contributing to its carcinogenic effects. 

When alcohol is consumed, the body metabolizes it into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. This byproduct can cause significant damage to the DNA within cells, stunting their ability to repair themselves. Over time, this accumulation of damage can lead to mutations that set the stage for cancer.

Alcohol consumption can also disrupt hormonal balance. It has been shown to increase the levels of certain hormones, like estrogen and insulin. These hormones serve as chemical messengers within the body, and when their levels are elevated, they can cause cells to divide more rapidly. Such an increase in cell division enhances the chances of cancerous changes occurring in the body.

Specific to cancers of the mouth and throat, alcohol can act as a solvent, enhancing the penetration of carcinogens into the cells of these tissues. This increased absorption can accelerate the damage to the cells in these areas, making them more susceptible to cancer.

The risk is inherent to alcohol itself, regardless of the type of drink – beer, wine, or spirits. All types of alcohol can cause harm.

The Alcohol and Cancer Link

While the mechanisms by which alcohol causes cancer are intricate, the link is clear: beyond the direct damage to cellular structures and hormonal disturbances, alcohol also influences cancer risk through several other pathways.

  • Impairment of nutrient absorption: Alcohol can interfere with the absorption and metabolism of essential nutrients that protect against cancer. For instance, it can impair the body’s ability to process and utilize vitamins such as folate, a B vitamin that’s vital for DNA repair and synthesis. Deficiencies in such nutrients can contribute to the development of cancer over time.
  • Effect on liver function: The liver is central to detoxifying harmful substances, including alcohol. Chronic alcohol consumption can lead to conditions such as liver cirrhosis, where liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue. This scarring can significantly reduce the liver’s ability to filter toxins, potentially leading to liver cancer.
  • Oxidative stress: Metabolizing alcohol produces ROS (reactive oxygen species), which can lead to oxidative stress, a state where there is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body. This stress can result in damage to proteins, membranes, and genes, contributing to cancer development.
  • Influence on immune function: Excessive alcohol use can weaken the immune system, making the body less effective at identifying and destroying cancer cells.
  • Promotion of inflammation: Chronic inflammation is a known risk factor for cancer, and alcohol can contribute to prolonged inflammatory responses in the body.
  • Synergistic effects with other risk factors: Alcohol can exacerbate the carcinogenic effects of other risk factors, such as tobacco use. In individuals who consume alcohol and use tobacco, the risk of certain cancers, like those of the oral cavity and esophagus, is significantly higher than from either substance alone.

Keep in mind that risk levels can vary from person to person based on genetics, lifestyle factors, and environmental exposures. Public health recommendations emphasize moderation or abstinence from alcohol as part of a cancer prevention strategy, alongside other healthy behaviors, such as a balanced diet, regular exercise, and avoiding tobacco.

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Alcohol and Cancer Risk

Drinking alcohol can cause different kinds of cancer. Here’s what the research says:

How Often do Alcoholics Get Cancer?

It’s difficult to provide specific numbers on how often alcoholics get cancer because it can vary widely based on factors like genetics, the type of alcohol consumed, the amount and frequency of consumption, lifestyle, and environmental factors. That said, it is known that chronic alcoholics have a higher risk of developing certain types of cancer than the general population.

The term alcoholic refers to individuals with alcohol use disorder, which is characterized by an inability to manage drinking habits. Chronic heavy drinking associated with alcoholism can lead to a range of health issues, including an increased risk of cancers such as:

  • Esophageal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Head and neck cancers
  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer

The risk of cancer in alcoholics is compounded by common factors associated with heavy drinking, such as poor nutrition, tobacco use, and the presence of other diseases, which can further increase the likelihood of developing cancer.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that alcohol-related cancer risks aren’t limited to alcoholics. Even individuals who consume alcohol moderately can have an increased risk of cancer, with the risk rising with the amount of alcohol consumed.

FAQs

Is alcohol carcinogenic?

Yes, alcohol is a known carcinogen.

Does drinking alcohol cause cancer?

Yes, drinking alcohol causes seven types of cancer.

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Get Treatment for Alcohol Addiction at Renaissance Recovery

If you or someone that you care about needs help recovering from alcohol abuse, reach out to Renaissance Recovery Center in Huntington Beach, California.

We offer intensive outpatient treatment of alcohol addictions and mental health disorders at our beachside rehab facility. This enables you to engage with therapy at an appropriate level of intensity while maintaining your everyday commitments.

All Renaissance treatment programs deliver a personalized mixture of the following therapies:

For immediate assistance combating alcohol addiction, call 866.330.9449.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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