For a lot of us, the idea that alcohol can cause cancer is hard to accept. After all, for many of us, it’s seen as an everyday part of life.
Watch and find out how drinking alcohol affects your risk of breast cancer
Around 5,400 primary liver cancers were diagnosed in the UK in 2013.*
Drinking more than around 5 units of alcohol a day increases the risk of liver cancer. This amount of alcohol is above the current government guidelines for alcohol intake. Long term heavy drinking causes cirrhosis, a condition where the liver is repeatedly damaged and scar tissue builds up, and may also directly damage the DNA in liver cells.*
A large Cancer Research UK study looking at lifestyle factors that cause cancer found that around a third of cancers of the mouth and throat (30%) were caused by drinking alcohol.*
The nitrosamine chemicals in alcohol pass over your mouth, throat and top of the larynx (the epiglottis) as you swallow. Upper throat cancer forms in the tissues of the hollow tube inside the neck which starts behind the nose and ends at the top of the windpipe and oesophagus.
Around 49,900 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year. Breast cancer is now the most common cancer in the UK (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer) and by far the most common cancer in women.*
Many research studies show that regularly drinking alcohol is associated with a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Even regularly drinking only one drink a day can increase your risk.
All types of alcohol, including wine, beer and spirits are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. While the type of alcohol does not matter, the size, alcohol content and number of drinks you have will affect your risk of breast cancer. The more alcohol you drink, the higher your chance of developing breast cancer at some point in your life.**
According to a recent World Cancer Research Fund report, there is strong evidence that consuming three or more alcoholic drinks a day increases the risk of stomach cancer. The report found that alcohol acts as a solvent, enhancing penetration of carcinogens into cells. These findings come at a time when stomach cancer is the third biggest cancer killer in the world with over 900,000 new cases a year.*
*Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Stomach Cancer, World Cancer Research Fund 2016
The fourth most common cancer in the UK. Around 41,900 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year in the UK.*
Alcohol increases the risk of bowel cancer. So cutting down on the amount you drink could reduce the risk. About 11 out of 100 bowel cancers (11%) in the UK are linked to drinking alcohol.
The risk of bowel cancer goes up with the more alcohol you drink. But even fairly small amounts can have an effect. The EPIC study found that for every 2 units a person drinks each day (less than a pint of premium larger or large glass of wine), their risk of bowel cancer goes up by 9%*
Around 8,750 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer each year in the UK. It’s become more common over the last 40 years.
Drinking alcohol increases your risk of squamous cell oesophageal cancer.* This cancer starts in the cells of the skin-like lining of the oesophagus. Your risk increases if you drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week. The less you drink, the lower your risk of developing cancer.
You are at higher than average risk of developing cancer of the larynx if you drink regularly. Alcohol, and the chemicals it contains, passes over the top of the larynx (the epiglottis) as you swallow. Compared to non-drinkers, heavy drinkers have about 3 times the risk of developing cancer of the larynx.*
You don’t need to be a heavy drinker to be at risk.
Any level of regular drinking increases the risk of a range of cancers.
Regularly drinking a pint of beer or a standard glass of wine every day can increase the risk of a range of cancers.
If you choose to drink, the secret to keeping your risk at a low level is to stick within the recommended drinking guidelines.
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Many of us underestimate the risk we are taking because we underestimate how much we are really drinking. It’s easy to do, especially if you enjoy a glass of wine with your dinner or a beer while relaxing on the sofa.
A single alcoholic drink often has more than one unit of alcohol in it.
Standard 175ml glass of wine2 units
Large 250ml glass of wine3 units
257ml alcopop bottle: 1.5 units
Pint of regular strength lager, beer or cider2 units
Pint of higher strength lager, beer or cider3 units
Single measure of spirit1 unit
Double measure of spirit 2 units
Standard 125ml glass of Champagne or prosecco: 1.5 units
Our bodies convert alcohol into the toxic chemical ‘acetaldehyde’ – one of the reasons for hangovers. This substance causes genetic mutations and permanently damages DNA, which can cause cancer to develop.
Alcohol may increase the levels of some of our hormones, including the female hormone, oestrogen. Oestrogen plays useful roles in our body but can increase the growth of some breast cancers.
Drinking too much alcohol damages the cells of the liver which can lead to cirrhosis, increasing the risk of developing liver cancer.
Alcohol makes it easier for the tissues of the mouth and throat to absorb the cancer causing chemicals in tobacco. This is one of the reasons why people who drink and smoke multiply the damage they do and have an increased risk of mouth and throat cancer.
In January 2016 the UK’s Chief Medical Officers launched new alcohol drinking guidelines following a comprehensive, independent review, the first to be carried out in 20 years.
To keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level men and women should drink no more than 14 units a week. A single alcoholic drink often has more than one unit of alcohol in it. It is the size and the alcoholic content that will affect your risk. The more you drink, the greater the risk. The less you drink, the lower the risk.
14 units equals 1½ bottles of wine
or 6 pints of regular strength lager
It is best to spread the 14 units over three days or more as one or two heavy drinking sessions increases your risk of death from long term illnesses and accidents and injuries.
The risk of developing a range of illnesses (including cancers of the mouth, throat and breast) increases with any amount you drink on a regular basis.
If you wish to cut down the amount you’re drinking, a good way to help achieve this is to have several drink-free days each week.
Women who are pregnant, or planning a pregnancy, are advised that the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all.
She was never a big drinker, but has now chosen to give up alcohol altogether to give her body the best possible chance. She shares her story...
Here are some tools that can help manage your alcohol consumption.
Keep an eye on the booze, compare your drinking with the alcohol unit guidelines and take control with free daily tips.
Keep an accurate record of whether you drank each day to show you just how far you’ve come in your month, and get an idea of how much you’ve saved on alcohol as a result.
If you are concerned about how much you, or someone you know, drinks you can speak to your GP or contact:Drinkline Freephone 0300 123 1110 Alcoholics Anonymous 0845 769 7555