People have been drinking alcohol for thousands of years. Alcohol is a part of socializing, celebration and some religious practices. Most adults drink low amounts of alcohol most of the time, while many other people do not drink at all (abstain). In general, men drink alcohol more often and in larger amounts than women.
Alcohol consumption is an important known cause of cancer and has been linked to many other health problems.
When discussing alcohol consumption, healthcare professionals talk about a “standard drink.” One standard drink of alcohol is roughly:
Alcoholic beverages can contain many different substances, but the main ingredients are ethanol and water. In Canada, a standard drink of beer, wine or spirits has about 13–14 grams of alcohol.
Alcohol isn’t always served in the standard drink measures. In Canada, alcoholic drinks can be served and sold in different sizes with different volumes. The alcohol content can be lower or higher, but the average alcohol content for a standard drink of beer, wine or spirits is:
According to the International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC), there is sufficient evidence that drinking alcohol increases the risk for certain types of cancer, including:
Some evidence also shows that high alcohol intake may increase the risk for pancreatic cancer. There is either not enough evidence of an association between alcohol and other types of cancer, or the evidence is inconsistent.
Alcohol is a very strong risk factor for head and neck cancers, including cancers of the:
Most studies show that drinking large amounts of alcohol (greater than 50 g per day or about 4 drinks or more a day) creates a 3 times greater risk for oral and pharyngeal cancers and a 2 times greater risk for, laryngeal and esophageal cancers. The risk for esophageal cancer may be 3–8 times greater with high alcohol intake. Some studies have reported increases in risk at lower levels of alcohol consumption, particularly among women.
Smoking and drinking alcohol together further increase a person’s risk of developing these types of cancer. Drinking alcohol combined with using tobacco increases the risk of head and neck cancers more than either alone. Risk is very high in people who are both heavy drinkers and heavy smokers.
The risk for developing head and neck cancer doesn’t seem to decrease for many years after a person stops drinking.
Drinking even one alcoholic drink a day can raise the risk for breast cancer by 1.5 times. The risk of breast cancer may increase with every additional drink a woman has each day.
Alcohol is linked with colorectal cancer in both men and women. Regularly drinking moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol can raise the risk for colorectal cancer by 1.4 times.
Drinking alcohol, especially large amounts of alcohol, can lead to scarring of the liver tissue (cirrhosiscirrhosisAn abnormal condition in which healthy liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue. Signs and symptoms include jaundice, fatigue, loss of appetite and itching of the skin.) and the most common type of liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma). Recent evidence shows that drinking 3 or more alcoholic drinks a day increases the risk of liver cancer. Cirrhosis also increases the risk of liver cancer.
IARC classifies alcohol as a known cancer-causing substance (carcinogen) and drinking alcohol is considered carcinogenic in humans. The exact way that alcohol affects a person’s risk for cancer is not completely understood.
There are different ways that alcohol may increase cancer risk.
Studies show that the risk of cancer increases with the amount of alcohol people drink and possibly how often (frequently) they drink. The more you drink, the higher your chance of developing cancer. It doesn’t matter what type of alcohol you drink. Any type of alcohol – beer, wines and spirits – can increase your risk for cancer.
Researchers have studied expectant mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy and cancer risk in their children.
Drinking too much alcohol for a long period of time can lead to a number of other health problems, including:
Cirrhosis can lead to lowered liver function and possibly liver failure.
Although drinking a light to moderate amount of alcohol may lower your risk for heart disease, heavy drinking can raise the risk of heart disease. Eating well and being active are better ways to help lower your risk of heart disease. Heavy drinkers and binge drinkers (having 4–5 drinks or more on one occasion) have a higher risk for heart disease and stroke.
Studies have suggested that drinking even a moderate amount of alcohol when you are pregnant may harm the fetus. Drinking during pregnancy causes a range of health problems in the baby, including Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). No amount of alcohol use in pregnancy has been proven to be safe.
Alcohol use can also cause injury and accidents.
Alcohol is a drug and can be addictive. Alcoholism is a serious disease that can have a harmful impact on your family, friends and work.
Current evidence does not identify a “safe” level of drinking that does not increase a person’s risk for cancer. However, there are guidelines for adults who wish to lower their risk of cancer from drinking alcohol. The less alcohol you drink, the more you reduce your risk.
Follow these tips to help reduce the amount of alcohol you drink and your risk of developing certain cancers:
My favourite thing about Camp Goodtime is being able to hang out with other kids who have survived cancer. They know what is going on in your life and can help you get through it.
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