Alcohol and Cancer Risk

Last Updated: May 28, 2019

Research shows that more than 5% of new cancer occurrences across the globe and 20% of all cancer deaths worldwide are attributed to alcohol. Medical oncologist Dr. Noelle LoConte explains the effect of alcohol on different parts of the body and its link to cancer, and answers what people can do to reduce their personal risk of several types of cancer.

More Information

Prevention and Healthy Living: Alcohol

Alcohol and Cancer, with Noelle K. LoConte, MD

Did You Know Drinking Alcohol Increases Cancer Risk?

Changes People Can Make to Lower Their Cancer Risk

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Cancer.Net: Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO®

Alcohol and Cancer – What is Your Risk?

Voiceover: Many people may not realize that alcohol consumption affects a person’s risk of developing certain types of cancer, including head and neck cancers, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, and colon cancer.  Research shows that more than 5% of new cancer occurrences across the globe and 20% of all cancer deaths worldwide are attributed to alcohol use.

Noelle LoConte, MD, Medical Oncologist; Member, American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO): Seven different cancers are associated with alcohol use. It’s actually different, depending on which cancer you’re talking about, how the alcohol causes the cancer.

When we drink alcohol, it’s converted by an enzyme into a carcinogen called acetaldehyde.

And that touches the mucosal surfaces of our head and neck and our upper esophagus and that’s how that causes that cancer is directly touching the cells. For liver cancer, it’s actually by causing cirrhosis. So if you don't get cirrhosis from alcohol, you don't get liver cancer.

For breast cancer, we believe that it affects the levels of female hormones called estrogen, but also a version of testosterone, called DHEA and that is converted into estrogen in a female’s body. So it makes those levels too high. And breast cancer generally is a hormone-sensitive cancer.

Colon cancer, alcohol affects the way we absorb folate, which is a vitamin and that’s a known risk factor for colon cancer.

Voiceover: While light to moderate drinking may not be as harmful, heavy and binge drinking is linked to an increased risk of developing cancer.

Dr. LoConte: Where we want to focus is really on these binge drinkers, so that’s defined as four or more drinks at a serving for women, five or more for men, or what are called high risk drinkers which are 8 or more per week for females or 15 or more per week for males. As far as what is a drink, that comes up very commonly. It’s a shot, so 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer. They’re all equivalent, they have the same amount of ethanol in them, which is what is converted into this acetaldehyde.

If you are a heavy drinker or a binge drinker, your risk is highest with head and neck cancer. But the numbers are highest for breast cancer because breast cancer is so common, but the absolute risk is highest with head and neck cancer.

Voiceover: Teens and young adults who drink, and women who drink while pregnant are considered high risk for becoming heavy drinkers over time.

Dr. LoConte: By drinking less, you’re going to lower your risk. It’s important to say you could never drink and you could still develop some of these cancers, so nothing is guaranteed with cancer. But in general, if people wanted to do a more healthy lifestyle, lower their risk of cancer, one of the things we would tell them to do is reduce the amount of alcohol that they drink.

Voiceover: You can talk with your primary care physician about safe, healthy ways to cut back on drinking.  And for comprehensive information about alcohol and cancer risk, visit

Dr. LoConte: Cancer.Net is an excellent resource for more information, specifically they have a podcast there about our statement around alcohol and cancer that I would encourage people to listen to.

[Closing and Credits]

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Cancer.Net: Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO®

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