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Alcohol and cancer: What you need to know

A young woman looks up into the camera.

Sept. 29, 2022—The link between alcohol and cancer risk has been known for some time. But, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), more than half of Americans don't know that alcohol use can increase their risk for cancer.

According to the AICR, the most common cancers linked to alcohol consumption are:

  • Breast cancer.
  • Colon and rectal cancer.
  • Oral cancers, including mouth cancer, esophageal cancer and throat cancer.
  • Liver cancer.
  • Stomach cancer.

Any level of alcohol use increases the risk for these kinds of cancer, according to a study published in The Lancet Oncology in 2021. However, heavier drinkers seem to experience a greater increase in cancer risk.

How does alcohol increase the risk of cancer?

We don't know all the reasons for the link between alcohol use and cancer. But scientists do understand some of the major ways it increases cancer risk. According to the AICR and the American Cancer Society, alcohol may:

  • Act as an irritant. Some of the chemicals in alcohol may damage cells they come into contact with—such as the tissues in the mouth and throat. That may lead to DNA changes as cells repair themselves.
  • Affect the liver. Alcohol can cause inflammation and scarring in the liver. In trying to fix this damage, your body may develop cancerous cells.
  • Increase estrogen levels. Drinking can increase how much estrogen your body produces. This may increase breast cancer risk in women.
  • Make it harder for the body to process healthy vitamins. Alcohol use may affect how well your body absorbs certain nutrients, including folate.

How to reduce your cancer risk

Avoiding alcohol is a great way to help lower your risk for cancer—as well as many other health issues. If you are concerned about your alcohol use, talk to your doctor. They can connect you to the help you need to make to a change.

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