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Alcohol and Cancer Risk

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of several types of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver, and breast.

The consumption of alcoholic beverages is listed as a known human carcinogen. The more alcohol a person drinks—particularly the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time—the higher their risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer. Based on data from 2009, an estimated 3.5% of all cancer deaths in the U.S. (about 19,500 deaths) were alcohol related.

Head & Neck Cancer

Alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for certain head and neck cancers, particularly cancers of the oral cavity (excluding the lips), pharynx (throat), and larynx (voice box). People who consume 50 or more grams of alcohol per day (approximately 3.5 or more drinks per day) have at least a two to three times greater risk of developing these cancers than nondrinkers. Moreover, the risks of these cancers are substantially higher among persons who consume this amount of alcohol and also use tobacco.

Esophageal Cancer

Alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for a particular type of esophageal cancer called esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. In addition, people who inherit a deficiency in an enzyme that metabolizes alcohol have been found to have substantially increased risks of alcohol-related esophageal squamous cell carcinoma.

Liver Cancer

Alcohol consumption is an independent risk factor for, and a primary cause of, liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma). (Chronic infection with hepatitis B virus and hepatitis C virus are the other major causes of liver cancer.)

Breast Cancer

Studies have consistently found an increased risk of breast cancer associated with increasing alcohol intake. Women who drink more than 45 grams of alcohol per day (approximately three drinks) have 1.5 times the risk of developing breast cancer as nondrinkers (a modestly increased risk).

The risk of breast cancer is higher across all levels of alcohol intake: for every 10 grams of alcohol consumed per day (slightly less than one drink), there is a 7–12% increase in the risk of breast cancer.

Colorectal Cancer

Alcohol consumption is associated with a modestly increased risk of cancers of the colon and rectum. A meta-analysis of 57 cohort and case-control studies that examined the association between alcohol consumption and colorectal cancer risk showed that people who regularly drank 50 or more grams of alcohol per day (approximately 3.5 drinks) had 1.5 times the risk of developing colorectal cancer as nondrinkers or occasional drinkers. For every 10 grams of alcohol consumed per day, there was a small (7%) increase in the risk of colorectal cancer.