You’ve probably heard that drinking too much alcohol can lead to a host of health problems. You may have also heard that it can increase your cancer risk. But how so? And how much do you have to drink to be at a higher risk for developing cancer?
“One drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men is considered moderate alcohol consumption and isn’t generally considered to be cancer causing,” says Dawn Severson, M.D., a medical oncologist with Henry Ford Health. “But excessive alcohol consumption does increase your cancer risk. For women, that means four drinks per day or eight drinks weekly. For men, that means five drinks per day or 15 drinks weekly. You also have to factor in the type of alcohol you drink: hard liquor contains more alcohol than a glass of wine or beer.”
How Does Drinking Alcohol Contribute To Cancer?
There are a few ways alcohol use can increase your cancer risk:
- Alcohol damages body tissue, so it puts the body in a state of repair: cells must quickly divide to heal itself. “The more times your body is forced to repair itself, the more likely it is that something will go awry in the healing process,” says Dr. Severson. “Chances are higher that when your cells divide, they will divide abnormally, and that’s how tumors form.”
- When alcohol is broken down by the liver, one of the molecules that it’s broken down to is a toxic, carcinogenic compound called acetaldehyde. “Acetaldehyde can damage DNA, which is the genetic material that our body needs to function properly,” says Dr. Severson.
- Alcohol impairs the body’s ability to break down nutrients, leading to malabsorption. “Folic acid, vitamins E, A, and C, the B vitamins—all of these nutrients are necessary for healthy cells,” says Dr. Severson. “If the body is deficient in those, it can lead to stress on the cells and further damage, possibly creating cell abnormalities and leading to cancer,” says Dr. Severson.
What Cancers Are Associated with Excessive Alcohol Use?
There are certain cancers that are specifically linked with excessive alcohol consumption, such as:
- Liver cancer. “Alcohol kills liver cells and this leads to cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver,” says Dr. Severson. “The liver is constantly attempting to overcome alcohol-related damage, and that is how cancer cells can develop.”
- Aerodigestive tract cancers, such as head, neck and esophagus cancers. The risk for esophageal cancer is further increased if someone has a genetic enzyme deficiency, which interferes with their ability to metabolize alcohol well. “However, many people don’t even know they have this enzyme deficiency,” says Dr. Severson.
- Breast cancer. “Alcohol can increase estrogen levels in women, and increased estrogen is associated with a higher breast cancer risk,” says Dr. Severson.
- Colorectal cancer. While colorectal cancer has a lower risk association than the above cancers, colon and rectal cancers can also be associated with excessive alcohol consumption.
If You Stop Drinking, Can You Reverse Your Risk?
If someone who used to drink heavily abstains from alcohol, they’ll reduce their likelihood of developing an alcohol-related cancer. “They’ll never be able to bring their risk back down to zero, but by significantly cutting down or abstaining, they can lower their risk from what it would have been when they were drinking,” says Dr. Severson. “And this alcohol consumption we’re talking about is over a long period of time. It’s not one or two drinks in your 20s that increases your cancer risk, it’s consistent, excessive consumption over the years.”
For most people, the key to alcohol consumption is the key to life: everything in moderation, nothing in excess. “It’s the same motto we would apply to our diet and lifestyle. If we’re drinking to a point that’s excessive, we know we’re going to have something ill come of it,” says Dr. Severson.
To make an appointment to talk with your doctor about your cancer risk factors and necessary screenings at henryford.com or 1-800-436-7936. To find a cancer specialist, visit henryford.com/cancer or call 1-888-777-4167.
Dr. Dawn Severson is a board-certified medical oncologist and member of Henry Ford Cancer. She sees patients at Henry Ford Macomb Health Center in Shelby Township and Henry Ford Macomb Hospital in Clinton Township.