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Does alcohol cause cancer?

A substantial body of evidence indicates that drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer, particularly mouth and throat cancer, oesophageal cancer, bowel cancer (colon and rectum), liver cancer and female breast cancer.

In 1988, the World Health Organisation classified alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen, which is the highest rating for any substance, and means that alcohol causes cancer. It’s not just heavy drinking that places a person at risk of cancer; although drinking four or more standard drinks per day doubles your cancer risk, even small amounts can lead to a higher risk.

It doesn’t matter what type of alcohol you drink, you are placing yourself at greater risk whether you drink wine, beer or spirits. Conversely there is no evidence that consuming alcohol prevents cancer, unlike the evidence that indicates small amounts of alcohol may help prevent heart disease.

How does alcohol cause cancer?

We’re not exactly sure why, but some evidence indicates that when we drink alcohol a toxic substance called acetaldehyde is produced. While helping to break down alcohol, acetaldehyde can also affect normal cells by damaging their DNA, which leads to cancer. In other cases, heavy consumption of alcohol can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, which in turn can lead to cancer. Further research now indicates a growing link between a higher risk of pancreatic cancer and drinking.

Of major concern is the link between alcohol, smoking and cancer risk. Research shows that alcohol and tobacco consumed together multiplies the risk of contracting cancer of the oesophagus by up to 19 times.

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How do you reduce the risk of cancer?

There’s no safe level of drinking that removes the risk of cancer. However, if you do consume alcohol the safest way to reduce the risk of cancer is to:

  • limit your intake – National Health and Medical Research Council recommends no more than two standard drinks a day.
  • avoid binge drinking. Do not “save” your drinks using alcohol-free days, only to consume them in one session.
  • have at least two alcohol-free days every week.
  • choose low alcohol drinks.
  • eat some food when you drink.

Eating healthy foods like fruit and vegetables, as well as regular exercise, has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer.

If you have any concerns or questions, get medical advice.