How Drinking Alcohol Raises Cancer Risk

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on August 10, 2022
3 min read

You probably know that smoking and getting too much sun can give you cancer. But you may not realize the dangers of cancer from tipping back wine, beer, or cocktails. In fact, 7 out of 10 Americans are unaware of the link.

Researchers have found that drinking causes chemical and other physical changes in our bodies that make cancers more likely. Alcohol is directly responsible for about 5% of new cancer cases and cancer-related deaths around the world.

Generally, the more you drink, the greater your cancer odds. Heavy drinkers, who down two or three drinks every day, are most likely to get cancer and to die from it. Even if you’re a light drinker (no more than three drinks a week) your chances are still higher than for teetotalers.

Alcohol ups your chances of cancer in at least seven parts of your body. They include your:

Liver. This organ’s main job is to filter blood and toxins. And alcohol is toxic to liver cells. Heavy drinking can inflame and scar your liver. Too much alcohol can double your chances of liver cancer compared to drinking no alcohol.

Mouth and throat. We have some of the strongest evidence for this. Heavy drinkers are five times as likely as nondrinkers to get cancer here. That’s because booze damages cells in these tissues. And the danger gets even bigger if you light up as well, since alcohol can help pave the way for harmful tobacco chemicals to get inside cells.

Esophagus (food pipe). Your chances for esophageal cancer, which can be very aggressive and deadly, go up in tandem with the number of drinks. Alcohol is especially likely to cause squamous cell carcinoma, a type of cancer that happens in the lining of your esophagus.

Colon and rectum. Men who drink heavily are more likely than even women who drink a lot to get cancer in their colon or rectum. Overall, heavy drinkers of both sexes face 44% higher risks than non-drinkers.

Breast. Women’s odds for breast cancer go up along with the amount you drink each week.

Alcohol gets into your cells easily. It can damage your DNA and set off different changes in your body:

Toxic chemicals. When your body breaks down the ethanol in alcohol, it makes a compound that’s believed to cause cancer.

DNA mutation. Alcohol can irritate and inflame your organs and tissues. As your body tries to repair itself, it can set off mistakes in your DNA that let cancerous cells grow.

Hormones. Alcohol can raise estrogen levels in women, which can fuel cancer growth.

Nutrients. Alcohol makes the body less able to absorb key vitamins and other nutrients that can affect cancer risk. These include folate, a B vitamin.

Weight gain. Alcohol packs a lot of calories. Being overweight or obese is linked to many types of cancer.

When it comes to cancer, it doesn’t seem to matter what you drink. It’s also unclear if quitting or limiting alcohol lowers your cancer odds.

But what’s clear is that the biggest dangers come if you have more than four drinks a day. A 1.5-ounce shot of liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer counts as one drink. Moderate drinking is up to one drink for women and up to two a day for men.

You might think you don’t drink much, but what’s in your glass may add up to more alcohol than you think. Some mixed drinks hold several shots of liquor. The alcohol concentration in some premium beers is the same as that for malt liquor.

Talk to your doctor if you worry about your drinking.