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How well do you know the link between alcohol and cancer?

April 16, 2020

Most people are unaware of the link between alcohol and cancer, despite alcohol being classified as a type 1 carcinogen. That means they're just as sure that it causes cancer as with tobacco smoke and asbestos.

Surprising? Not really. After all, alcohol kills cells; that's why it makes for such a great cleaning agent. Luckily, once alcohol enters our body it gets diluted, which is why even if a drink burns as it goes down, it settles in the stomach.

Despite this, alcohol is still linked to at least 7 types of cancer, charting its path through the body.


-pharynx & larynx






DID YOU KNOW? 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. The risk for developing mouth and throat cancers for people who drink alcohol is up to 6 times greater than those who don't.

How does it do this?

There's multiple pathways through which alcohol can cause cancer.

- 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.

The Takeaway

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 be 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.