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Alcohol and Cancer: Causes & Prevention

Can Alcohol Cause Cancer Banner

Many different factors can contribute to an increased risk of developing cancer. The use of alcohol is one of these risk factors.

Current statistics demonstrate that as much as 6 per cent of all cancer cases can be linked back to the individual’s use of alcohol.

The reality is that alcohol use is a significant risk factor for developing cancer, but it is also a risk factor that is preventable.

All types of alcoholic beverages that are available in today’s market are considered to be a risk factor for cancer. This includes popular drinks such as beer, spirits, cocktails, and both red and white wine.

The reality is that the more alcohol you consume, the higher your risk is for developing a variety of different types of cancers.

The scientific evidence on the link between alcohol and cancer is well-established. With this in mind, it is important to discuss some key points related to this topic.

Does Alcohol Use Increase Your Risk of Certain Types of Cancer?

As we have established, there is a clear link between cancer and the use of alcohol. With this said, there are specific types of cancer that have particularly strong links to this issue. [1]

The seven types of cancer that are closely linked to the consumption of alcohol include:

  • Liver Cancer – Current statistics demonstrate that those who heavily consume alcohol are putting themselves at two times the increased risk of developing liver cancer [3]
  • Breast Cancer – Consumption of alcohol is a significant risk factor for women in terms of the possibility of developing breast cancer. The higher the amount of alcohol that a woman consumes, the more at risk she is for developing breast cancer [3]
  • Oesophagal Cancer – The consumption of alcohol is a notable risk factor for the development of the oesophagal cancer type known as squamous cell carcinoma [3]
  • Cancer of the Larynx – It is believed that the chemicals contained in alcohol can cause damage to larynx cells. This causes an increased risk of developing cancer [4]
  • Cancer of the Pharynx – There is strong evidence related to the carcinogenic effect that alcohol can cause to the pharynx. Alcohol consumption is strongly linked to this type of cancer [5]
  • Colon and Rectum Cancer – The use of alcohol is an associated risk factor for the development of colon and rectum cancer [6]
  • Mouth Cancer – Mouth cancer is another type of cancer that is considered to be closely linked to the consumption of alcohol [7]

There is also strong evidence that alcohol consumption is tied to a risk of developing stomach cancer.

There are several other types of cancer that alcohol consumption might cause an increased development risk.

In all of these cases, it is important to note that the more alcohol that you consume, the higher your risk of developing one of the types of cancers. [1]

What Does the Scientific Literature Say About the Links Between Alcohol and Cancer

The research into alcohol use and its link to cancer is extensive. Leading researchers around the world have proposed many different hypotheses about how the consumption of alcohol can increase your risk of developing certain types of cancer.

There are four specific ways that alcohol is associated with a significant risk factor for the development of cancer: [3]

  • Increased Estrogen Levels in the Blood – This is a sex hormone that has been linked as a risk factor for breast cancer
  • The Generation of Oxygen Species That Are Reactive – These molecules can cause damage to your DNA as well as to fats throughout the body. This process is called oxidation and it has been linked as a risk factor for cancer
  • The Effects of Metabolizing Alcohol – When the body breaks down the ethanol that is contained in alcohol it converts to a substance called acetaldehyde. This is a likely carcinogen and is considered to be a risk factor link between alcohol and cancer. It is a toxic substance that can cause permanent DNA damage
  • An Impairment of One’s Ability to Break Down Nutrients – The use of alcohol impairs the body’s ability to both breakdown, and absorb nutrients. This is another factor that is linked in as a risk factor for certain types of cancer

Many different cancer-causing agents are involved with both the fermentation process and the production of alcoholic beverages.

These agents include hydrocarbons, asbestos phenols, and nitrosamines. [3]

How does alcohol cause cancer?

Cancer is the result of abnormal cells dividing and destroying normal body tissue. Cells that are defective due to alcohol contamination will typically die and form new ones or continue to grow and form abnormal cells. This can alter DNA in the cells which increases the risk of cancer.

Alcohol creates additional health problems that increase the risk of developing cancer.

When you combine these additional health risks with other uncontrollable and controllable cancer risk factors such as age, gender, genes, smoking, poor health, and poor oral hygiene, it’s a recipe for disaster.

The following health issues are known to be a result of alcohol use:

  • Obesity or unhealthy weight
  • Liver failure
  • Damage to DNA
  • High levels of estrogen and insulin

Ethanol is the primary ingredient in alcohol after you consume alcohol the ethanol metabolizes into a toxic chemical known as acetaldehyde. This metabolic process can produce highly reactive atoms or molecules, known as free radicals. Free radicals and acetaldehyde are both known to alter or cause damage to DNA in cells.

If you drink and smoke, your body is given a double whammy. Drinking alcohol makes it easier for other toxins to be absorbed in the body. Tobacco is one of those toxins.

The more that toxins are absorbed by cells in the body the greater the chances of tissues being damaged leading to a higher risk of cancer in multiple areas of the body.

If you continue to consume large quantities of alcohol, you are increasing the chances that your liver will be scarred and inflamed.

This inhibits the liver from performing the function of filtering and breaking down the alcohol to reduce the toxicity, which leads to liver failure because the liver is unable to filter out the toxins.

This creates unhealthy liver cells and possible disruption of DNA in the liver cells, which increases the risk of cancer.

When the body is unable to filter toxins it makes it challenging to absorb necessary vitamins and nutrients.

Folate, aforementioned, is one of these essential vitamins. Having low folate levels has been linked to increasing the risk of getting breast and/or colon cancer.

Alcohol use can create an overabundance in the levels of blood estrogen produced in premenopausal and postmenopausal women. This increases the risk for a female drinker to develop breast cancer. This is due to elevated levels of estrogen which simulate rapid reproduction in healthy and cancerous breast cells.

High levels of estrogen and the added calories from alcohol consumption equals weight gain. This weight gain can lead to obesity or unhealthy weight, which increases your risk of cancer.

The increased risk due to obesity is linked to the increase in insulin being produced in the body. The increase in insulin levels makes it possible for some cancers to develop.

The role of Folate and Other Nutrients

The process of alcohol production is through the fermentation process of starch and sugars. This results in carbon dioxide and ethanol. When our bodies consume ethanol it breaks down into a toxic substance known as acetaldehyde. When your body isn’t processing the acetaldehyde as fast as it’s being converted, it creates a buildup of this toxic chemical which can lead to cancer.

Alcohol consumption creates the most danger to tissues that are close to the ingestion of alcohol. When alcohol is ingested, the absorption of necessary nutrients and vitamins is weakened.

This includes the following:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B complex
  • Folate
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Carotenoids

The vitamins and nutrients, specifically folate is necessary to help lower the risk of getting cancer, especially cancer associated with alcohol use.

More Information About How Alcohol Use Can Increase Your Risk of Developing Certain Forms of Cancer

The reality is that alcohol is classified as a carcinogen. This is a class of substances that are linked to cancer. Your risk of developing cancer as a result of consuming alcohol increase as your alcohol intake increases.

If you also participate in other risky behaviours such as having poor oral hygiene, poor diet, and you smoke, then you are further increasing your chance of a cancer diagnosis.

In all of these cases, the risk of developing cancer continues to rise the more prevalent these behaviours are within the individual’s life. [3]

Does Alcohol Interact With Other Harmful Substances to Increase the Risk of Cancer?

The answer to this question is not definitive, but studies have shown that the use of alcohol in conjunction with other cancer-causing products such as tobacco could further raise your risk factors for cancer.

It is possible that alcohol’s interactions with other harmful chemicals such as the ones that are contained in tobacco might cause a further increase in the possibility of a cancer diagnosis.

The use of alcohol is also linked to inhibiting the body’s ability to rid itself of certain harmful, cancer-causing chemicals. [1]

The Connection Between Being Overweight, the Use of Alcohol, and How It Increases the Risk for Cancer

Another one of the problems that alcohol causes for many individuals is an extra influx of calories that can lead to becoming overweight. Being overweight is another one of the leading risk factors for developing cancer. There is also evidence to suggest that alcohol use can contribute to the growth of cancer cells in other possible ways. [1]

How Big of a Problem Is the Link Between Alcohol and Cancer?

Alcohol use is considered to be a significant problem in the United Kingdom. Current statistics show that 27 per cent of those that consume alcohol in Great Britain often engage in binge drinking.

In 2016 alone, there were more than 9 thousand deaths related to alcohol in the United Kingdom. The statistics also demonstrate that up to 24 per cent of English and Scottish adults routinely drink more than the government guidelines suggest.

These statistics demonstrate what a significant issue the use of alcohol is in the United Kingdom. [13]

It is clear that alcohol use is one of the biggest problems faced by the United Kingdom. It is also considered to be one of the most significant contributing factors to the development of cancer. It is currently estimated that the use of alcohol contributes to some 11,900 annual cases of cancer diagnoses in the United Kingdom.

Though any amount of alcohol consumption can be a potential risk factor for the development of cancer, this risk goes up significantly when an individual consumes more than 14 units of alcohol per week. U.K government guidelines state that individuals should never consume more than 14 units in a given week. [8]

A 2015 study on the link between alcohol use and cancer in the United Kingdom revealed some concerning figures.

These statistics showed that 7 per cent of liver cancer cases were linked to alcohol consumption. 6 per cent of colon and rectum cancer was linked to alcohol use and 13 per cent of oesophagal cancer cases were linked to consumption of alcohol.

Anywhere from 25 to 30 per cent of mouth and throat cancer cases were linked to the use of alcohol. The study also showed that 8 per cent of women diagnosed with breast cancer had their diagnosis linked back to their use of alcohol. [8]

Is It Only Heavy Alcohol Consumption That Raises the Risk of Cancer?

The simple answer to this question is a resounding no. It is not only heavy drinkers that put themselves at risk of developing certain forms of cancer as a result of their use of alcohol. It is true that the more alcohol you consume, the higher your risk of developing cancer is.

Despite this fact, there is no level of alcohol consumption that is considered by scientific researchers to be completely safe and free of risk.

The majority of the research that has been done on this topic is related to the amount of alcohol that individuals use over time. This information is averaged out.

The evidence suggests that the amount of intake as a risk factor is not affected by the way that the individual drinks. Whether they tend to drink every day or binge drink on the weekend, these factors do not seem to show any specific increase or reduction in risk.

It is the total amount of alcohol that is consumed by the individual that puts them at an increased risk of developing cancer. [9]

The studies that have been done on this topic show that the cancer risk level is related to the amount of total alcohol consumption that the individual has engaged in.

With this point in mind, it is worth noting that though any alcohol consumption can add to one’s risk of developing cancer, it is true that the more you drink, the higher your risk becomes. [9]

The Benefits of Reduced Consumption of Alcohol as It Relates to the Topic of Cancer

The reality is that any alcohol use will put you at a heightened risk for cancer but it is also undeniable that reducing your consumption can help to lower that risk.

The relationship between alcohol dosage and cancer has been clearly established by leading researchers in the field. Some studies show that women increase their chance of a cancer diagnosis by as much as 50 per cent when they consume 4 glasses of wine every day.

This risk goes up to 130 per cent when the amount of wine consumption increases to 8 glasses each day. At the same time, smaller consumption amounts can also end up leading to a cancer diagnosis. Though this is the case, reduced consumption does mean reduced risk. It simply does not mean an eliminated risk.

This fact helps to add emphasis to the importance of reduced alcohol consumption or complete cessation of consumption. The latter is particularly recommendable for individuals that have other risk factors for cancer such as smoking, poor diet, and a family history of the disease.

These are all convincing reasons for one to moderate their alcohol consumption or to eliminate it from their lives entirely. [10]

Those individuals that are currently battling an addiction to alcohol will reduce their risk of cancer by entering into a rehab program that can help them to eliminate alcohol from their lives entirely.

The link between alcohol and cancer is a strong one, but reduced consumption or cessation of drinking can certainly help to lower the overall risk.

Is There a Level of Alcohol Consumption That Can Be Considered to Be Completely Safe?

The answer to this question is again a resounding no. It is not possible to say that there is a lower threshold limit of alcohol that one can safely consume without an increased chance of developing cancer. The fact that every individual’s body is different is one of the major reasons behind this.

At the same time, the risk is indeed reduced if you choose to follow the guidelines that have been set forth by the government of the United Kingdom. This government guidance emphasizes that you should not consume more than 14 units of alcohol in any given week.

These units of alcohol should also be spread across at least three days to attain the maximum effectiveness in minimizing the risk of cancer as a result of alcohol intake. It is also highly recommended that individuals observe completely alcohol-free days during the week if they do plan to consume. [11]

The bottom line here is that there is no level of alcohol consumption that can be classified as completely safe, but reducing one’s regular alcohol consumption and adhering to the U.K. government guidelines can help to lower the overall risk.

Are There Specific Tips That One Can Follow to Reduce Their Risk of Cancer That Is Linked to Alcohol Consumption?

It can be useful to have some guidelines to follow for reducing your risk of a diagnosis of cancer that is linked to alcohol consumption. Some of the best tips that you can follow include:

  • Always adhere to the U.K. government recommendation of no more than 14 units of alcohol per week
  • Avoid binge drinking
  • Completely quitting the consumption of alcohol in its entirety is one of the most effective tips for reducing risk
  • If you feel that you have a problem with alcohol, seek help through a trusted program
  • Use unit measures when you are pouring your own drinks at home
  • Make use of an online drink checker that can help you get an idea of your current level of alcohol consumption

These are a few of the best tips to keep in mind as you endeavour to take steps to reduce your risk of a cancer diagnosis that is connected to your consumption of alcohol. [11] It should once again be emphasized that any consumption of alcohol is a risk factor for cancer. This is particularly the case for the cancer types that were previously discussed.

Beyond the Link Between Alcohol and Cancer, Excessive Consumption Can Also Lead to These Health Consequences

As has been demonstrated here, the use of alcohol is a major problem in the United Kingdom and it is a problem that is closely linked to many of the diagnosed cases of cancer that occur in the country each year.

Beyond the fact that alcohol use increases your risk of developing cancer, it can also be a major risk factor for many other serious health issues.

These health problems include:

  • Long term alcohol use can lead to liver scarring known as cirrhosis that can cause liver failure
  • Heavy drinkers are at risk of hepatitis inflammation which can also cause liver failure
  • Alcohol use is linked to damage of organs such as the brain and the pancreas
  • Alcohol use increases your risk of stroke
  • Alcohol use increases your risk of heart disease
  • Excessive alcohol use can lead to high blood pressure
  • Drinking alcohol while pregnant can lead to serious complications such as birth defects
  • In severe cases of alcohol addiction, the immediate cessation of use can lead to significant withdrawal symptoms that include seizures, hallucinations, confusion, and can be life-threatening in the worst cases

These risk factors, combined with the risk factors for developing cancer as a result of alcohol use are all convincing reasons to adhere to the government’s guidelines about consumption.

They are also convincing reasons to seek professional help from trained addiction treatment specialists if you have an addiction to alcohol and are unable to quit on your own. [1]

Consumption vs risk

The American Society of Clinical Oncology states that 70% of Americans were unaware of the risks involving alcohol consumption and developing cancer. Consuming one drink a day is enough to put you at a 30% risk of developing cancer of the oesophagus.

This same one drink increases your chance of developing breast cancer by 5% and cancer of the middle part of the throat by 17%. Heavy drinkers (defined as drinking more than 4 alcoholic beverages per day) are at an even greater risk.

There have also been studies to suggest that the mortality rate in postmenopausal women with breast cancer is higher in heavy drinkers versus non-drinkers.

If you are a breast cancer survivor and drink 3-4 times a week, you are increasing your risk for recurrence.

What is the definition of 1 drink by medical and scientific standards?

1 drink is equal to 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, and a 1 ounce shot of liquor. Therefore if you think that drinking 1 cocktail with several shots of liquor counts as one drink, think again. Your consumption of alcohol is dependent on both frequency and quantity.

Drinking 2 mixed drinks with 2-3 shots of liquor each day labels you as a heavy drinker.

All it takes is for you to drink 2-3 mixed drinks with 2-3 1 ounce shots of liquor and you increase your risk of liver and breast cancer by up to 66 per cent, according to the National Institutes of Health and U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Defining alcohol use

Drinking habits or alcohol consumption can be summed up in 4 categories. The use of alcohol and the frequency has an impact on your cancer risk. Here is how alcohol use is broken up:

1. Moderate

Moderate alcohol use is referred to as the recommended alcohol consumption of one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men.

2. Excessive

Excessive alcohol use can include binge drinking and heavy drinking. However, it is referring to the drinking patterns of those that shouldn’t drink, such as underage individuals and pregnant women. This category is the misuse of alcohol.

3. Binge drinking

When you have a pattern of consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time like a couple of hours, it’s considered binge drinking. You are consuming enough alcohol to quickly bring your blood alcohol concentration right .08% or higher. College students and underage drinkers are known to be binge drinkers. It is downing a lot of alcohol in one sitting.

4. Heavy drinking

Heavy drinking is consuming a large amount of alcohol for your gender over 1 week or more than one occasion. For women, 8 or more drinks in a week, and for men 15 or more drinks in a week is considered heavy drinking.

Repairing the damage

The sooner that you stop drinking the better your chances of reducing the risk of cancer. However, keep in mind that it can take years to repair the damage created by alcohol.

To reduce the risk of cancer to the level of a person who has never had a drink, could take anywhere from 16-30 years. However, that shouldn’t discourage you from reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption.

For every year that you go without touching alcohol, you reduce your risk by 6-7%.

Here’s an example: If you are a female in menopause that consumes 3 alcoholic beverages a week, your risk of developing breast cancer is 15% higher than a non-drinker. However, based on research studies, if you were to quit drinking and maintain abstinence from alcohol within 5 years you could be at the level of a non-drinker.

If you are an excessive or heavy drinker and you consume 4-8 alcoholic beverages per day, your risk increases to 50%, and 130% respectively.

Cancer prevention

You will hear it over and over again, however, it cannot be stressed enough, the best way to prevent cancer is to lower your risk. This starts by looking at your diet and lifestyle. If you are a heavy drinker or you smoke tobacco, it’s time to quit. If you feel you need to have a drink, do so in moderation. Avoid binge drinking and heavy drinking.

Some people will say the reason they drink wine is because of the antioxidants found in wine. The antioxidant benefit comes from grapes. Incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet. The fibre and nutrients from fruits and vegetables will improve your overall health and well being.

Genetic testing has proven to be valuable in the sense of detecting if there is a mutation that places you at a higher risk for cancer. The test is performed by analyzing DNA found in your blood and/or saliva.

Having a genetic mutation does not mean that you will develop cancer, it just means that you have a slight disadvantage and need to take precautions to reduce your risk.

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The Importance of Seeking Help If You Recognize That You Have a Problem With Alcohol

The link between alcohol and cancer is a good reason by itself to consider giving up the habit. Beyond this, there are many other health benefits associated with the complete cessation of alcohol consumption.

For many individuals, this is a difficult task to accomplish on their own. If you have admitted to yourself that you have an addiction to alcohol, the next step is to seek help from a qualified rehab program.

A certified program will be able to provide you with beneficial guidance from trained addiction treatment professionals that will be able to help you get to the root of your problem with alcohol.

One of the many benefits that you will enjoy by getting clean and sober is a reduced risk that you will end up being diagnosed with cancer that is linked to your alcohol use. [12]

Common Signs That You Have an Alcohol Problem

Below, we list signs that could indicate you are suffering from alcoholism:

  • You feel a compulsive need to drink daily
  • You suffer withdrawal symptoms when you do not have access to alcohol
  • You have gotten into legal trouble as a result of your drinking
  • Your family and friends have encouraged you to seek help
  • Your relationships with those closest to you have been damaged due to your drinking problem
  • You have tried to quit on your own but were unable to do so
  • Your drinking has led to poor performance in areas such as work and school

These are a few of the leading signs that indicate that you have a problem with alcohol abuse and addiction that needs to be addressed with the help of trained addiction treatment specialists. [12]

The Right Alcohol Rehab Program Can Make a Difference In Your Health Outlook

It is a big step to admit that you have a problem with alcohol and it is something that you should be commended for.

Once you have come to this realization, it is important to do your research into what form of treatment will be best for you so that you can overcome your addiction.

Qualified addiction treatment professionals can help you with this. Today is the perfect day to find out about scheduling an initial assessment. You will be doing yourself many favours. Among these favours will be a reduced risk of developing cancer.

There Are Community-Based Programs That Can Also Help You In Your Fight to Remain Clean and Sober

If you have successfully completed an alcohol rehab program, you have taken a big step toward your overall recovery. You have also taken a big step toward reducing your risk of cancer. At the same time, you still have a battle ahead of you that includes working each day to stay clean and sober.

One of the good pieces of news here is that there are dedicated organizations all across the United Kingdom that work to provide vital support to recovering addicts.

These groups are often the perfect place for you to meet and interact with other recovering addicts that are going through the same battle that you are. It can be highly beneficial to be able to join together as a mutual system of support for one another. It is always a good idea to stay active with your local support groups as you work diligently to maintain your sobriety. [14]

Effects of alcohol with cancer treatment

If you have been diagnosed with cancer or you are undergoing cancer treatment, drinking alcohol will make it worse. Remember, alcohol is processed through the liver, the same organ that processes medications used to treat cancer.

Excessive alcohol consumption can cause inflammation of the liver, which can weaken the metabolic process of your medication, which puts you at risk for adverse reactions from radiation or chemotherapy treatments.

If you have cancer located in the oral cavity or mouth, you can irritate sores that you have by consuming alcohol.

You should also keep in mind that some of the medications prescribed to reduce side effects during chemotherapy include painkillers, anti-anxiety medication, or sleeping pills. Mixing these drugs with alcohol can potentially be dangerous.

If you have questions about the drug interactions with alcohol you should speak with your physician, however, it is best to eliminate alcohol from your diet.

Additionally, if you are currently in remission for any type of cancer, consumption of alcohol increases not only your risk of a recurrence but the risk of developing new cancer.