Types of Cancer Caused by Drinking Alcohol

Over the last 30 years, there has been extensive research about the health effects of drinking alcohol. While long-term alcohol use is often associated with liver problems, many people are surprised to learn it is related to other chronic conditions, such as dementia, pancreatitis, and even several types of cancer.

While moderate alcohol use may increase cancer risk, the greatest risk occurs with heavy, long-term use.

This article discusses the association between alcohol and liver, breast, oral, throat, laryngeal, and colorectal cancer. It also reviews what constitutes heavy drinking. 

Alcohol's Role in Cancer Deaths

Research shows that alcohol use contributes to 4% of cancer deaths worldwide and 3.5% in the United States (US).

Liver Cancer

Coloured CT scan showing cancer of the liver
DEPT. OF CLINICAL RADIOLOGY, SALISBURY DISTRICT HOSPITAL / Getty Images

The association between liver cancer and alcohol consumption has been thoroughly researched and documented. Long-term excessive drinking is a major risk factor for cirrhosis, a condition marked by scarring and inflammation of the liver.

For those with cirrhosis, scar tissue replaces healthy tissue over time. This keeps the liver from properly functioning. Having cirrhosis greatly increases your risk of developing liver cancer.

Breast Cancer

technician adjusting mammograph machine
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Many women are surprised to learn that a few drinks a week may increase their risk of breast cancer. Alcohol affects estrogen levels by changing the way the body metabolizes them. Estrogen levels are linked to breast cancer development.

The risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Women who drink moderately or excessively regularly face the most risk.

Definition of Heavy Drinking

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that heavy drinking is defined in the following way:

  • Men: Four drinks a day or more than 14 drinks per week
  • Women: Three drinks a day or more than seven drinks per week 

Oral Cancer

Male doctor examining mouth of female patient using tongue depressor and flashlight in clinic examination room
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Over 75% of people coping with oral cancer are drinkers. In fact, research shows that those who consume alcohol are six times more likely to be diagnosed with oral cancer than those who don't. Additionally, those who drink and smoke are at an even higher risk of developing the disease.

Throat Cancer

Hispanic doctor examining neck of patient
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/MNPhotoStudios / Getty Images

Throat cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the pharynx and other structures of the throat. Research tells us that chronic alcohol consumption is associated with throat cancer development, but when combined with tobacco, the risk of developing the disease drastically increases.

If you smoke and drink, talk to someone about quitting today.

Esophageal Cancer

Oesophageal cancer, illustration
KATERYNA KON/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

Esophageal cancer develops in the esophagus, a long tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. It has been estimated that about 75% of esophageal cancer cases are related to chronic alcohol consumption.

The type of esophageal cancer most people who drink excessively develop is usually squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus. This is in contrast to esophageal adenocarcinoma, which often occurs in response to chronic reflux.

Laryngeal Cancer

Resting larynx
CNRI/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

Laryngeal cancer is a type of throat cancer (see above) that affects the larynx or "voice box"—an organ that plays an important role in breathing and communicating. It contains the vocal cords, which give us the sound needed to speak.

While tobacco is the prime risk factor in most cases of laryngeal cancer, alcohol, in conjunction with tobacco use, greatly increases the risk. Studies have shown that alcohol enhances (or increases) tobacco's carcinogenic (cancer-causing) effect.

It's also important to note that those who continue to smoke and drink during laryngeal cancer treatment are less likely to be cured. The risk for a second tumor also increases.

Colon and Rectal Cancer

Illustration of colon cancer
selvanegra/Getty Images

Several studies have linked colon cancer to heavy, long-term use of alcohol. The evidence from scientific studies shows the association is stronger for men, but both genders are at an increased risk compared to nondrinkers.

If you are a heavy drinker, you can reduce your risk of colon cancer, and other types of cancer, by avoiding alcohol or reducing the amount you consume.

If you are an alcoholic, your healthcare provider may recommend having a colonoscopy earlier than the recommended age to detect precancerous polyps or cancerous growths.

Defining Heavy Drinking in Association with Colon Cancer Risk

In 2020, a review of 16 studies looked at the connection between alcohol and colorectal cancer. They defined drinking levels in the folllowing way:

  • Occasional drinking: Less than one per day
  • Light or moderate drinking: Up to two drinks per day
  • Heavy drinking: Two to three drinks per day
  • Very heavy drinking: More than three drinks per day

According to this analysis, the increased risk for colon cancer is associated with very heavy drinking.

Summary

The negative health effects of heavy alcohol use have been well researched and documented. Studies show heavy drinking contributes to liver disease, dementia, pancreatitis, and some cancers. This includes liver, breast, oral, throat, laryngeal, and colorectal cancer.

Tobacco use with heavy drinking increases the risk of cancer further. 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) have similar definitions of heavy drinking. 

A Word From Verywell

Regardless of how many drinks you have per day, if it affects your health, work, home, family, or school, it's a good idea to cut back. If you want to cut back, but cannot, notify your healthcare provider. Support groups are also helpful because they allow you to interact with others who understand your feelings.

Many people avoid quitting because the thought of quitting cold turkey is daunting. Extreme, sudden withdrawal can be dangerous for very heavy drinkers. However, you are heading in the right direction even if you cut out one drink or cigarette daily while working out a plan with your provider.

If you or a loved one want information on support or treatment facilities in your area, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does stopping drinking reduce cancer risk?

    Yes. While the risk may not resolve immediately, it does decrease over time. It also helps your overall health and wellness.

  • How often does alcohol cause throat cancer?

    Research shows that the risk of laryngeal (voice box) or pharyngeal (throat) cancer for heavy drinkers increases by three to five times that of non-drinkers. Studies also estimate that about 75% of esophageal cancer is related to chronic heavy alcohol use.

  • What does throat cancer feel like in the beginning?

    Symptoms of throat cancer include hoarseness, persistent sore throat or cough (lasting longer than four to six weeks), problems swallowing, ear pain, or a lump in the neck or throat.

16 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Brandi Jones, MSN-ED RN-BC
Brandi is a nurse and the owner of Brandi Jones LLC. She specializes in health and wellness writing including blogs, articles, and education.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed