Drinking alcohol could increase your risk of these 5 cancers

By Charlie Williams
Published June 3, 2020

Key Takeaways

There’s no beating around the bush—2020 has been a tough year for the United States. As we approach the halfway point, we’ll be reckoning with more than 100,000 deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic, fierce civil unrest, and an uncertain economic climate. No matter who you are or where you live, it’s a heavy burden to bear. As stress skyrockets, new reports find that roughly a third of all Americans show signs of clinical anxiety or depression. According to the CDC, elevated levels of anxiety, stress, and depression are common during outbreaks. To cope, the agency recommends meditation, stretching, a healthy diet, regular exercise, and plenty of sleep. One thing the CDC doesn’t recommend? Alcohol consumption.

High levels of alcohol consumption have been shown to increase stress and reduce immune system function. But, that hasn’t stopped Americans from heading to the liquor store in huge numbers. During the week ending March 21, for instance, sales of alcoholic beverages shot up 55% compared with the same period in 2019, according to a Nielsen report.

Beyond the short-lived pains of a hangover and increased risk of infection, high levels of alcohol consumption have been scientifically proven to increase the risk of a much more serious disease: cancer. So, before you turn to the bottle to help ease the stresses of a tough year, remember that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of these five cancers:

Head and neck cancers

Alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for certain head and neck cancers, like those of the oral cavity (excluding the lips), the throat, and the larynx. In fact, having approximately ≥ 3.5 drinks per day can double or triple the likelihood of developing these types of cancer. Even worse, the risk is much higher in people who consume alcohol and use tobacco.

Head and neck cancers account for about 4% of all cancers in the United States, affecting roughly 65,000 people per year. Many head and neck cancers can be cured, especially if caught early. The most common treatments include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. Overall, the 5-year relative survival rate for head and neck cancers is about 66%.

Esophageal cancer

Like head and neck cancers, alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for a type of esophageal cancer called esophageal squamous cell carcinoma—the most prevalent esophageal cancer worldwide. This cancer occurs most often in the upper and middle portions of the esophagus and can cause complications like pain, obstruction of the esophagus, and bleeding in the esophagus. Esophageal cancer is common and deadly. The sixth most common cancer worldwide, the disease has a 5-year survival rate of just 47%.

Liver cancer

Alcohol consumption is not only a major independent risk factor for liver cancer but also a primary cause of the disease. Regular alcohol consumption can lead to inflammation and scarring in the liver, which is thought to play a role in the development of cancer. Men are about three times more likely to receive a diagnosis of liver cancer than women.

Since 1980, the US incidence of liver cancer has tripled while US death rates have more than doubled. Despite the fact that the 5-year survival rate for liver cancer has risen substantially in the last 4 decades, it remains very poor overall. Just 18% of people with liver cancer are expected to survive 5 years after diagnosis.

Breast cancer

More than 100 epidemiologic studies have suggested an association between higher levels of alcohol consumption and increased breast cancer risk in women. For instance, a meta-analysis of 53 of these studies concluded that women who drank more than 3 alcoholic beverages per day had 1.5 times the risk of developing breast cancer than nondrinkers. In the Million Women Study in the United Kingdom, which included over 28,000 women with breast cancer, researchers found that every 10 g of alcohol consumed per day was linked to a 12% increase in breast cancer risk.

While breast cancer is the second most common cause of death from cancer in women in the United States, survival rates for breast cancer are excellent. The average 5-year survival rate for women with invasive breast cancer is 91%. The 10-year survival rate remains high at 84%.

Colorectal cancer

Alcohol consumption can also modestly increase the risk of developing cancers in the colon and rectum. In a meta-analysis of 57 cohort and case-control studies that examined the association between alcohol consumption and these diseases, researchers found that people who regularly consumed ≥ 3.5 drinks per day had 1.5 times the risk of developing colorectal cancer compared with nondrinkers or occasional drinkers. What’s more, for every 10 g of alcohol consumed per day, there was a 7% increased risk of colorectal cancer.

People with colorectal cancer can expect 5-year survival rates of about 64%, which is a huge improvement compared with previous decades. Currently, there are more than 1 million colorectal cancer survivors in the United States.

The key takeaway

Modest consumption might be enjoyable in the short term—in fact, red wine can bring modest health benefits when consumed modestly—but it’s clear that when it comes to alcohol, the risks tend to outweigh the benefits.

Even though the ways that alcohol can increase cancer risk are not completely understood, the fact that cancer risk spikes alongside consumption has been extensively proven through scientific study. For those looking to reduce cancer risk, be sure to keep a close eye on the types of alcohol you drink and, more importantly, on the amount of alcohol you consume over time.

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