Even One Alcoholic Drink Raises Your Cancer Risk

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ACSO), warns that people drinking alcoholic drinks face a significantly increased risk of developing cancer(s). In a published article in the Journal of Clinical Oncology ASCO showed evidence that even light drinking can slightly raise your risk of developing cancer.

They also point out that heavy drinkers face much higher risks of developing cancers including mouth, throat cancer, cancer of the voice box, liver cancer and, to a lesser extent, colorectal cancers.

Dr. Noelle LoConte, Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the lead author of the ASCO statement said, “The message is not, ‘Don’t drink.’ It’s, ‘If you want to reduce your cancer risk, drink less and if you don’t drink, don’t start, It’s different than tobacco where we say, ‘Never smoke. Don’t start.’ This is a little more subtle.”

Based on this evidence and following the already existing public policy Cancer ABCs is recommending that there be new public health initiatives to curb the use of alcohol. Policies could include new taxes on alcoholic beverages to absolute restrictions on ads targeting minors, like the ban on alcohol advertising on New York City’s subways and buses. 

Cancer ABCs also would like to see all forms of marketing that use cancer ribbons curbed for all alcoholic products.  Given the relationship between cancer and alcohol a marketing campaign that includes cancer ribbons is at best cynical and laughable.

In their paper, ASCO researchers reviewed earlier published studies and concluded that 5.5 percent of all new cancers and 5.8 percent of all cancer deaths worldwide can be attributed to the use of alcohol. The paper stated clearly that alcohol plays a causal role in cancers of the throat and neck, voice box, liver, and colon, as well as esophageal squamous cell carcinoma and breast cancer.

According to a report published in May 2017 by the American Institute for Cancer Research, for women, just one alcoholic drink a day can increase their risk of developing breast cancer.   This report analyzed 119 studies, including data on 12 million women and over a quarter of a million breast cancer cases.  It concluded that there was substantial evidence that alcohol consumption increases the risk of both pre- and postmenopausal cancer and that drinking a small glass of wine or beer every day — about 10 grams of alcohol — increases premenopausal breast cancer risk by 5 percent and postmenopausal risk by 9 percent.

“The more you drink, the higher the risk,” said Dr. Clifford A. Hudis, the chief executive of ASCO. “It’s a pretty linear dose-response.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control even moderate drinkers, defined by as one daily drink for women and two for men, face nearly a doubling of the risk for mouth and throat cancer and more than double the risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus, compared to nondrinkers. Moderate drinkers also face elevated risks for cancers of the voice box, female breast cancer, and colorectal cancers.

The risk for heavy drinkers, defined as eight or more drinks a week for women and 15 or more a week for men, including binge drinkers are multiples higher. Heavy drinkers face roughly five times the risk of mouth and throat cancers and squamous cell esophageal cancers than nondrinkers, nearly three times the risk of cancers of the voice box or larynx, double the risk of liver cancer, as well as increased risks for female breast cancer and colorectal cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, first classified the consumption of alcoholic beverages as carcinogenic to humans in 1987.  At that time they tied the consumption alcohol to cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, and liver.  Since the 1987 report, there has been more and more evidence accumulated by the IARC tying alcohol to even more types of cancers including colorectal cancer and, breast cancer, cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, colorectal, and liver.

What does this mean for people who already have cancer?  Curbing, or ideally stopping your alcoholic use is probably even more important for you than for a person who has not been diagnosed with any cancer.  Having one cancer does not extend any protection against having another cancer.  It might be more important for a person with cancer to avoid developing another cancer since the treatment for the first cancer might complicate the treatment for the second.


Joel T. Nowak, MA, MSW wrote this Post.  Joel is the CEO/Executive Director of Cancer ABCs.  He is a Cancer Thriver diagnosed with five primary cancers - Thyroid, Metastatic Prostate, Renal, Melanoma, and the rare cancer Appendiceal cancer.