What Types of Cancer are Caused by Drinking Alcohol

It's true that several types of cancer are caused by drinking alcohol.  The health effects of drinking alcohol have been thoroughly researched and documented. While most people associate long-term alcohol use with liver problems, many are surprised that it is related to other chronic conditions, such as dementia, pancreatitis and even several types of cancer.

Liver, throat and esophageal cancer have the most clear association with chronic, long-term alcohol use, but other cancers have been indicated in studies as well. Tobacco use, combined with alcohol, greatly increases the risk of some cancers; the combination is a "perfect storm," especially in cancers that affect the upper digestive tract (esophageal and throat cancer).

In general, the more alcohol you drink the greater your risk, so even cutting down a bit can help.  Overall it's felt that alcohol is the cause of 3.5% of cancers in the United States.  Given that 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women are expected to develop cancer over their lifetime, that's not a small number.

Liver Cancer

Young People Drinking at a Bar. Credit: Jim Arbogast

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. Over time, healthy tissue is replaced by scar tissue, impeding the liver's ability to properly function. Having cirrhosis greatly increases your risk of developing liver cancer.  Check out these other causes of liver cancer to find ways to lower your risk.

Breast Cancer

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 clearly linked to breast cancer development. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Women who drink moderately or excessively on a regular basis face the most risk.

Oral Cancer

Those who consume alcohol are six times more likely to develop oral cancer than those who don't. Research shows that over 75 percent of people with oral cancer are drinkers. Additionally, those who drink and smoke are at an even higher risk of developing the disease.  Check out some other risk factors for oral cancer, as well as signs and symptoms to watch for if you've ever imbibed.

Throat Cancer

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.  Check out this list of cancers caused by smoking, and if you smoke and drink, talk to someone about quitting today.

Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer develops in the esophagus, a long tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. It has been estimated that about 75 percent 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

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) the carcinogenic effect of tobacco.

Colon and Rectal Cancer

Several studies have linked colon cancer to heavy, long-term use of alcohol. According to the American Cancer Society, male drinkers generally have a higher risk than women drinkers, but both are at an increased risk in comparison to non-drinkers.

If you are a heavy drinker, you can greatly 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 doctor may recommend that you have a colonoscopy earlier than the recommended age to detect any precancerous polyps or cancerous growths.


American Cancer Society. Alcohol Use and Cancer. Updated 02/12/14. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/dietandphysicalactivity/alcohol-use-and-cancer

National Cancer Institute. Alcohol and Cancer Risk. Updated 06/24/13. http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/alcohol/alcohol-fact-sheet

Continue Reading