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Alcohol and cancer

Alcohol is a carcinogen. This means it causes cancer. Alcohol is one of the most preventable causes of cancer after smoking.

The less you drink, the lower your risk of developing alcohol-related cancer.

Each year in Ireland:

  • 1,000 people are diagnosed with alcohol-related cancers.
  • Alcohol causes almost 400 bowel cancers.
  • Alcohol causes at least 260 female breast cancers.

Types of cancer caused by alcohol

Alcohol causes at least 7 types of cancer, including:

  • Breast
  • Liver
  • Bowel
  • Mouth
  • Upper throat
  • Larynx
  • Oesophagus (foodpipe)

How alcohol increases your risk of cancer

Any type of alcoholic drink can increase your risk of cancer. What matters is the amount of pure alcohol you drink, not the type of drink.

When alcohol is broken down in your body it can damage your body’s cells. Alcohol is converted in our bodies into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. This can cause cancer by damaging our DNA and stopping cells from repairing the damage.

Alcohol can also increase the levels of some hormones, such as oestrogen. This increases the risk of breast cancer.

Alcohol also impairs the body’s ability to absorb important nutrients that may protect you against cancer.

Alcohol helps cancer-causing substances from tobacco to move into the body, especially to the cells lining the mouth, head and neck, and oesophagus (food pipe).

How much alcohol increases your risk

People are more likely to get cancer if they drink a lot of alcohol. How much alcohol increases your risk depends on the type of cancer.

Heavy drinking increases the risk for all the cancers caused by alcohol. The more you drink, the greater the risk.

For breast cancer, even light regular drinking increases the risk.

Cancer risk from alcohol varies for different parts of the body. The strongest association is for tissues that come into direct contact with alcohol, such as the mouth, head and neck.

The amount of alcohol you drink across your life affects your cancer risk. The younger you start drinking, the more years you drink and the heavier you drink, all matter.

Drinking in your teens and 20s does not result in a diagnosis of cancer immediately. But it increases the risk 10 to 20 years later. It will depend on how much and how often you drink.

Alcohol, smoking and cancer

If you smoke as well as drink alcohol, your risk of certain cancers is even higher. Cigarette smoke contains over 70 cancer-causing chemicals.

Alcohol makes it easier for these harmful chemicals to enter the cells lining the:

  • mouth
  • throat
  • larynx (voicebox)
  • oesophagus (foodpipe)

This greatly increases the risk of cancer developing in these areas.

People who drink and smoke are 5 times more at risk of these cancers.

Cancer and young people

Cancer risk is increased when your cells are exposed to alcohol over a long period of time. The more your cells are exposed, the higher the risk.

For example, you’re not likely to develop an alcohol-related cancer in your 20s. But if you start drinking at a young age, 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.

Young women who drink through their teens and early twenties are more likely to develop breast cancer than those who do not drink during the same period.

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

Alcohol and breast cancer

Alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones, such as oestrogen. This can lead to a higher risk of breast cancer. Alcohol can also increase your risk of breast cancer and other cancers by damaging DNA in cells.

Even drinking small amounts of alcohol (just over 1 standard drink per day) can increase the risk of breast cancer.

Around 1 in 13 breast cancer cases in Ireland are linked to alcohol.

Alcohol and digestive cancers

Drinking 2 alcoholic drinks a day increases the risk of colorectal (bowel) cancer, as well as other digestive cancers.

Heavy drinkers (people that consume 4 or more drinks per day) have an increased risk of:

  • pancreatic cancer
  • liver cancer
  • gastric (stomach) cancer

Reduce the risk

Alcohol is one of the most preventable causes of cancer after smoking.

You can reduce your risk of cancer if you do not drink alcohol. The less you drink, the lower your risk of cancer.

Non-urgent advice: Talk to your GP if:

  • you have any unusual or unexplained changes in your body

Page last reviewed: 19 September 2022
Next review due: 19 September 2025