Most people are unaware of the link between alcohol and cancer, despite alcohol being classified as a type 1 carcinogen. That's the highest level of certainty, shared by substances such as tobacco smoke and asbestos.
But alcohol's role in the development of cancer shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, alcohol kills cells; that's why it makes for such a great cleaning agent. Luckily, once alcohol enters our body it becomes highly diluted, which is why we can drink a glass of alcohol with relatively no difficulty.
Despite this, alcohol is still linked to 7 types of cancer.
Only 29% of Australians are aware of its link to mouth and throat cancer, and only 16% are aware of its link to breast cancer. Cancer Australia estimates that roughly between 1.9- 5.8% of all cancers in Australia each year are attributable to alcohol consumption. There is strong evidence that alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, stomach, bowel, liver and breast. The risk for developing mouth and throat cancers for people who drink alcohol is up to 6 times greater than those who don't.
When the body breaks down alcohol in the bloodstream, it produces a substance called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a toxic substance known to cause the DNA in cells to replicate incorrectly, causing mutations which can lead to cancer.
Alcohol can also cause direct tissue damage, increasing absorption of other carcinogens those cells come into contact with. This is why drinking and smoking combined is far more dangerous than either of them alone. Drinking alcohol damages the cells which line your mouth and throat, which then makes it easier for carcinogens in tobacco to be absorbed.
Alcohol can influence hormone levels such as oestrogen and insulin. Hormones play an important role in signalling to cells when they should grow and divide. Increased and irregular exposure to oestrogen is believed to cause an increase in risk for breast cancer.
The link between alcohol and damage to the liver is well known. Not only is alcohol directly toxic to the liver, it is also a cause of liver cirrhosis, a condition which causes inflammation and scarring and goes on to increase the risk of developing cancer in the liver.
Even small amounts of alcohol can begin to increase one's risk of cancer. Many organisations believe that an increase in cancer is associated with any level of drinking, even amounts you may consider moderate. The long-term health of most people will e improved by reducing the amount of drinks you have throughout the week. Following government guidelines for responsible drinking can be useful for minimising your long-term risk of cancer.
For more information about guidelines for responsible drinking, take a look at our article.