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Even Moderate Alcohol Use Increases Risk of Certain Cancers in Women

Article date: February 25, 2009

By Rebecca Viksnins Snowden

There's a lot of buzz about the health benefits associated with having a glass or two of red wine a day. While it's true that red wine can have a positive effect on your heart, drinking alcohol of any kind can also have a negative impact on your health.

Results from a large UK-based study found that drinking even low-to-moderate levels of alcohol -- less than 3 drinks per day -- can increase a woman's risk of developing certain cancers.

In the Million Women Study, University of Oxford researchers tracked cancer incidence and alcohol use in nearly 1,300,000 middle-aged women in the United Kingdom. The average age of the women in the study was 55, and about 3 out of 4 identified themselves as drinkers. Among these women, the average alcohol intake was about one drink per day.

Nearly 69,000 women were diagnosed with cancer over the study period, which had a follow-up of just over 7 years. Women who drank were found to be at increased risk of cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx (throat), esophagus, larynx (voice box), rectum, liver, and breast. And the risk for these cancers increased with the number of drinks a woman consumed, regardless of the type of alcohol she drank.


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Based on these findings, the researchers estimated that in the UK, alcohol accounts annually for about 11% of all breast cancers, 22% of liver cancers, 9% of rectal cancers, and 25% of cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, esophagus, and larynx.

Women who drank and were current smokers were at an even higher risk for cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, esophagus, and larynx.

The study did find that alcohol use reduced the risk for some cancers, including thyroid cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and renal cell carcinoma. More research about alcohol's protective effects for certain cancers is needed, the researchers say.

The findings are published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

In an editorial accompanying the article, Michael Lauer, MD, and Paul Sorlie, PhD, from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, in Bethesda, MD, say that even though some studies have found that moderate alcohol consumption may have positive effects on the heart, these new findings should give pause to women who may drink for this reason. "From a standpoint of cancer risk, the message of this report could not be clearer. There is no level of alcohol consumption that can be considered safe," they write.

If you do drink, the American Cancer Society recommends you limit yourself to no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. Women who are concerned about cancer risk versus their risk of heart disease might want to discuss their alcohol intake with their doctors.

What counts as a drink?

  • 12 ounces of beer 
  • 5 ounces of wine 
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits

Talk to your doctor about other lifestyle choices that can reduce your risk of cancer, including eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting regular cancer screenings.


Citation: "Moderate Alcohol Intake and Cancer Incidence in Women." Published online February 24, 2009 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (Vol. 101, Issue 5). Corresponding author: Naomi E. Allen, Cancer Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford, UK.

"Alcohol, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer: Treat With Caution." Published online February 24, 2009 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (Vol. 101, Issue 5). Michael Lauer, MD, and Paul Sorlie, PhD. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Bethesda, MD.


Reviewed by: Members of the ACS Medical Content Staff

ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases.

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