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Are alcohol related cancers a ticking time-bomb for young people?

Just like no one wants to start a pension in their twenties, no young person really wants to think about how their lifestyle might be storing up later health problems.

Published: 10 December 2019

cancer in the body 4

Picture courtesy of Cancer Research UK

Just like no one wants to start a pension in their twenties, no young person really wants to think about how their lifestyle might be storing up later health problems.

But with alcohol now classified as a grade 1 carcinogen (cancer-causing substance), with new links between alcohol and certain cancers being confirmed in recent years and the number of alcohol-related cancers set to double by 2020, is alcohol a ticking time bomb for younger drinkers?

To answer this, we need to understand why cancer happens and where alcohol fits in.

Why does cancer happen?

Normally cells can make new, perfect copies of themselves to replace old cells. But sometime things go wrong and a ‘bad’ copy is produced. This is how cancer cells are created.

diagram of mutation

Cancer-causing substances like tobacco and alcohol can make the copying (genetic) machinery in the cells go wrong, so cancer cells are more likely to happen.

Alcohol can also make cancer more likely by increasing other risk factors. For example, it can raise the amount of the female hormone oestrogen, which can increase the risk of breast cancer. Alcohol is responsible for 1 in 8 breast cancers.

Cancer develops over time: The longer you drink, the bigger the risk

When our cells are exposed to alcohol cancer risk is increased – the more the cells are exposed, the more likely cancer-causing changes will happen.

Just like smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer overnight, you’re not likely to develop an alcohol-related cancer in your twenties. But if you start drinking early, you’re increasing the chance of cancer developing later on.

  • The risk of mouth, throat and colorectal cancer is increased for young men and women who drink alcohol throughout their lifetime.1
  • Young women who drink through their teens and early twenties are more likely to develop breast cancer than those who don’t drink during the same period.2

If you are diagnosed today with [an alcohol-related] cancer, it is likely that the alcohol exposure began at least 15-20 years ago.”3

 why alcohol causes cancer

Future health

While most people recognise smoking as a cause of cancer, many are still unaware of the links between alcohol and cancer. And yet over 900 people in Ireland are diagnosed with an alcohol-related cancer every year, and 500 people die from these cancers. ­

Of course there are many people diagnosed with cancer every day that is not alcohol related.  Alcohol is only one of many risk factors in relation to cancer, but it is right up there with tobacco in terms of the harm it does and it’s something we can all control.

If we want to prevent cancer caused by alcohol in today’s young people we need to change the way we look at alcohol. We need to recognise that drinking alcohol carries a risk with it, especially if you start drinking regularly in your teens or early twenties.

Over half the alcohol-related cancers in Ireland could be prevented by sticking to the low-risk drinking guidelines.4

Related topics

Alcohol and health

Tips on cutting down on alcohol

Alcohol and cancer

Alcohol, Cancer and Your Health booklet

[1] Jayasekara H, MacInnis RJ, Room R and English DR (2016) “Long-Term Alcohol Consumption and Breast, Upper Aero-Digestive Tract and Colorectal Cancer Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”. Alcohol Alcohol 51(3): 315-30.

[2] Liu Y, Colditz GA, Rosner B, et al. Alcohol intake between menarche and first pregnancy: a prospective study of breast cancer risk. J Natl Cancer Inst 2013; 105(20): 1571-8.

[3] Stokowski et al (2015) Alcohol and Cancer: Drink at Your Own Risk

[4] Laffoy M., Mc Carthy T., Mullen L., Byrne D., Martin J., Cancer Incidence and Mortality due to Alcohol: An Analysis of 10-Year Data; Ir Med J. 2013; 106 (10) 294-297.