The Link Between Alcohol and Cancer

woman holds glass of red wine outside at table

Most people know that drinking too much alcohol can lead to health problems. But not everyone knows that one of those health problems may be cancer. With alcohol, the key to staying healthy is moderation.

Having one drink at dinner or a party isn’t likely to cause you much harm. But routinely having more than 1 or 2 drinks per day could raise your cancer risk. Drinking alcohol is linked to a higher risk of mouth and throat cancers, liver cancer, colon cancer, and breast cancer.

The American Cancer Society recommends limiting alcohol to no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 for men.

What counts as a drink?

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

Breast Cancer

Research has shown that women who have 2 to 5 alcoholic drinks daily have a higher risk of breast cancer than women who drink only 1 drink a day or not at all. Studies have found evidence that links even lower levels of drinking alcohol to an increase in breast cancer risk. As little as 3 to 6 glasses of wine a week has been shown to slightly increase breast cancer risk.

It’s not clear how or why alcohol increases the risk, or which women are most likely to be affected. But limiting alcohol is especially important for women who have other risk factors for breast cancer, such as breast cancer in their families.

Colon Cancer

Colon cancer has been linked to the heavy use of alcohol. At least some of this may be due to the fact that heavy alcohol users tend to have low levels of folic acid in the body. Still, alcohol use should be limited to no more than 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women.

Liver Cancer

Alcohol abuse is a leading cause of cirrhosis, a disease in which liver cells become damaged and are replaced by scar tissue. Cirrhosis is linked with an increased risk of liver cancer. In a recent study, a significant number of liver cancer cases were associated with heavy drinking.

Mouth and Throat Cancers

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing mouth, throat, and esophagus cancers. The risk goes up even more for people who smoke as well as drink. About 7 out of 10 patients with oral cancer are heavy drinkers.

According to some studies, the risk of these cancers in heavy drinkers and smokers may be as much as 100 times more than the risk of these cancers in people who don't smoke or drink.

Festive Drinks Can Be Alcohol-free

If you drink at all, moderation is wise for a lot of reasons. Overdoing it can lead to many serious health problems, including liver damage, an inflamed pancreas, high blood pressure, psychological disorders and alcohol dependence.

Limiting your alcohol intake doesn’t mean you can’t still have a fun and festive party or meal. Try this recipe for a non-alcoholic sangria from the American Cancer Society cookbook Celebrate! Healthy Entertaining for Any Occasion, which you can get in the American Cancer Society bookstore.

Each serving has approximately 90 calories. To add a festive touch, add fruit such as fresh pineapple, frozen grapes, maraschino cherries, or orange slices.

Recipe: Sangria Blanca Punch

  • 4½ cups pineapple juice
  • 1½ cups white grape juice
  • 1½ cups passion fruit juice
  • ½ cup fresh lime juice
  • 2 12-ounce cans ginger ale

Combine all juices in a punch bowl. Chill.

Just before serving, add ginger ale, stirring gently. Serve in cups with ice.

Serves 8.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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