Evidence has shown that alcohol can cause cancer. There is no safe level of alcohol consumption. Reducing your alcohol consumption to no more than two standard drinks a day can lower your risk.
Cancer is a disease of the body's cells. The body is constantly making new cells to replace worn-out ones, to grow, or to heal itself after an injury. Normally cells grow and reproduce themselves in an orderly way. Sometimes, cells can reproduce themselves in an uncontrolled way, which can lead to cancer. 1
In many cases we don't know why this happens, but we do know that a number of lifestyle risk factors, such as, smoking, drinking alcohol, UV radiation, being physically inactive or inheriting a faulty gene, can cause cells to change. These abnormal cells may grow into a lump that is called a tumour. 1
Tumours can be benign (not a cancer) or malignant (a cancer). Benign tumours do not spread to other parts of the body. A malignant tumour is made up of cancer cells. These cells can spread beyond the area where the cancer first developed. If untreated the cancer cells may invade and destroy surrounding tissues. 1
There are more than 200 different kinds of cancer, each with its own name and treatment. 1
Alcohol is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen. This is the highest carcinogen rating, equal to tobacco smoke and asbestos. 3 9
Alcohol-related cancer can develop in many different parts of the body. 3 Research has found convincing evidence of alcohol causing a range of cancers in humans such as: 2 9
Head and neck cancers: oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus
Alcohol damages or destroys cells, and the replacement cells may include cancerous cells. Alcohol starts to be digested in the mouth, and can break down to form acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a cell poison and can have damaging effects on the lining cells of the mouth, throat and oesphagus.4 6 11
High alcohol consumption is a risk factor for stomach cancer. 8 The stomach is the first organ to have long contact with alcohol. The content of the alcohol stimulates gastric juice secretion within the stomach. 5 Gastric juices are used to break down food so it can move into the small intestine so its nutrients can be absorbed. 8 There is evidence that alcohol causes inflammation within the stomach, and it appears this may precipitate the development of cancer. 6
Alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk for developing liver cancer. It is commonly seen in people with alcohol cirrhosis. The development of liver cancer requires long periods of drinking and drinking volumes greater than 10g/day (1 standard drink). 5
Click here to learn more on alcohol and liver.
Bowel (colon, colorectal)
Bowel cancer is any cancer within the large intestine or rectum. 7 Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer amongst males and females in Australia. 10 Drinking alcohol can increase the risk of developing colorectal polyps. Polyps can start as benign which may become cancerous over time. 5 When alcohol is digested acetaldehyde is produced, and this can become concentrated in the mucus layer of the bowel. Bowel cancer starts in the mucus layer, and if undetected can spread into the bowel walls. 5 7
There is an increased risk of breast cancer with alcohol use. Evidence has shown there are different mechanisms by which alcohol can cause breast cancer including hormonal influences, and the level of acetaldehyde circulating throughout the body. 6
Facts and figures
In 2011, 2 people per day were hospitalised in WA for alcohol-related cancers.12In 2011, 2 people died per week from alcohol-related cancer in WA.13
This means there’s enough evidence to prove that alcohol causes cancer. 2
There is no evidence that any level of drinking provides any protection against developing cancer. If you choose to drink, to remain at low risk of alcohol-caused cancer, health experts recommend having no more than two standard drinks on any day.
LinksCancer Council WA
ResourcesAlcohol and Cancer - Information for Health Professionals
1 Cancer Council WA. Retrieved from: http://www.cancerwa.asn.au/resources/what-is-cancer/ accessed 4 May 2014
2 National Health and Medical Research Council. (2009). Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol: Commonwealth of Australia. Page 23. Available at http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines/publications/ds10
3 International Agency for Research on Cancer. Monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans: alcohol drinking. Volume 44. Lyon: IARC. 1988
4 Duggan, A.E., & Duggan, J.M. (2011). Alcoholic liver disease. Australian Family Physician. 40 (8), 590 -592
5 Heather, N., Peters, T.J., & Stockwell, T. (Editors). (2001). International Handbook of Alcohol Dependence and Problems. Wiley: West Sussex
6 National Health and Medical Research Council. (2001). Australian Alcohol Guidelines. Health risks and benefits.
7 The Cancer Council Victoria 2007. Bowel (colorectal) cancer: information for people with cancer, their family and friends. Melbourne: The Cancer Council Victoria.2007. Retrieved from: http://www.cancervic.org.au/downloads/brochures/cancer_types/Bowel_cancer_08.pdf
8 Cancer Council Victoria. Stomach and Oesophageal Cancer. Retrieved from: http://www.cancervic.org.au/downloads/booklets/Stomach-Oesophageal-cancer.pdf / accessed 6 May 2014
9 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) and Australasian Association of Cancer Registries 2008, Cancer in Australia: an overview 2008. Cancer Series no. 46. Cat no. CAN 42 Canberra: AIHW.
11 Garro & Leiber, 1992 as cited in National Health and Medical Research Council. (2001). Australian Alcohol Guidelines. Health risks and benefits.
12Overview of drug-related hospitalisations due to alcohol among residents of the State. Epidemiology Branch (PHI) in collaboration with the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRC-SI). Generated using data from the WA Hospital Morbidity Data Collection. Proportion of drug and alcohol related deaths identified by aetiological fractions. Accessed Wednesday, 30 April 2014 by Russell Bridle (Drug and Alcohol Office).
13Overview of drug-related deaths due to alcohol among residents of the State. Epidemiology Branch (PHI) in collaboration with the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRC-SI). Generated using data from the WA Death Registrations which includes data from the WA Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths and Australian Bureau of Statistics. Proportion of drug and alcohol related deaths identified by aetiological fractions. Accessed Wednesday, 30 April 2014 by Russell Bridle (Drug and Alcohol Office).
Call the Alcohol and Drug Information Service on (08) 9442 5000 or 1800 198 024 toll free for country callers
For emergencies call the 000 emergency line.