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‘Moderate alcohol consumption - two drinks of alcohol (10g) per day does not increase the risk of cancer in general. However, four drinks per day increases the risk of cancer by 22%. High alcohol consumption (8 daily drinks) increases the risk of cancer at any site by 90%.

Evidence is clear, that alcohol is carcinogenic for some types of cancer, and that the risk is dose dependent.’

'Alcohol As A Cause Of Cancer'. The Australian Cancer Institute 2008

Alcohol and Cancer

Perhaps no illness is more feared in the developed world than cancer as few direct causes have been identified, with the exception of cigarette smoking. However, research is increasingly showing that obesity, poor diet, lack of exercise and heavy alcohol consumption increase our risk of contracting cancers of several kinds.

Alcohol and cancer is a sensitive area, and certainly there is an increased risk of many cancers if consumers regularly drink more than moderately (30g a day in most cases), including colorectal and cancers of upper digestive tract  (especially if you smoke). Much evidence now shows that risk of breast cancer and alcohol use is linear (i.e. some increase of risk at any dose, especially if overweight or low in folate).

Scientists don’t know exactly why alcohol may increase the risk of developing some cancers, but research indicates that the following play a part:

  • Acetaldehyde - As alcohol  is metabolised in your body it is converted into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde which circulates before being broken down into harmless CO2 and water. Acetaldehyde can damage your DNA and stop your cells from repairing that damage, which could lead to cancer.
  • Oestrogen and other hormones - Alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones, such as oestrogen, testosterone and insulin. The risk of some forms of breast cancer, for example, can be increased when there are unusually high levels of oestrogen.
  • Liver Cirrhosis - Cirrhosis of the liver, a result of heavy drinking, makes you more vulnerable to liver cancer.
  • Folate - Folate is an important vitamin found in whole grain cereals and green leafy vegetables that helps our cells produce new DNA correctly. Some studies have found that cancer is more common in people with low levels of folate in their blood.

What the experts say...…

Sir Richard Doll, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, concluded that:


“Of all lifestyle factors related to cancer, alcohol is a modest attributable risk at 4-6%, while the attributable risk for cigarette smoking is approximately 30% and that for diet is 20-50%.”

However, the diseases where alcohol poses ‘significant risk’ at moderate levels of consumption are rare with the exception of breast cancer and for drinkers who also smoke.


The Canadian Cancer Society states 'Research shows that 30 to 35% of all cancers can be prevented by eating well, being active and maintaining a healthy body weight.The key to eating well and maintaining a healthy weight is to focus on what you add to your life, not what you take away. It's easier to add healthy foods each day rather than take away foods that you enjoy'. The society recommends limiting your consumption to one drink a day for women and two for men. For more information visit:

There have been few studies describing the relation between varying levels of alcohol consumption and the total risk of cancer. A paper published in the annals of oncology in May 2013 presents a meta-analysis that relates alcohol consumption to all-cancer mortality; it was based on almost 50,000 deaths reported in the literature from 18 prospective cohort studies. As expected, the reported average consumption of 50 or more grams of alcohol per day (equivalent to 4 or more typical drinks each day) was associated with an estimated 32% increased risk of dying from cancer, But, surprisingly, the analyses demonstrated a J-shaped curve for alcohol and cancer. Light drinkers (12g a day) showed a statistically significant 9% lower risk, moderate drinkers showed no effect, while heavier drinkers showed a 32% increased risk of all cancer mortality.

Reference: Jin M, Cai S, Guo J, Zhu Y, Li M, Yu Y, Zhang S, Chen K. Alcohol drinking and all cancer mortality: a meta-analysis. Ann Oncol 2013;24:807-816. doi: 10.1093/annonc/mds508.Y, Zhang S, Chen K. Alcohol drinking and all cancer mortality: a meta-analysis. Ann Oncol 2013;24:807-816. doi: 10.1093/annonc/mds508.

Breast Cancer (Click for more information)

Drinking and smoking combined

Smoking and drinking together greatly increases your risk of developing throat and mouth cancer than doing either on their own. That’s because when you drink alcohol it’s easier for the mouth and throat to absorb the chemicals in tobacco that cause cancer. 

It’s also true with oesophageal (gullet) cancer. One study found that people who drank up to five units of alcohol and smoked up to eight cigarettes per day could increase their risk of oesophageal cancer between 13 (for men) and 19 times (for women).

Further information

Cancer statistics for Canada

Lung, breast, colorectal and prostate cancer are the most common types of cancer in Canada (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer). Based on 2013 estimates, 187,600 new cases of cancer (excluding about 81,700 non-melanoma skin cancers) and 75,500 deaths will occur in Canada in 2013.

  • More than half (about 52%) of all new cases will be lung, breast, colorectal and prostate cancers.
  • Prostate cancer accounts for about one-quarter (26%) of all new cancer cases in men.
  • Lung cancer accounts for 14% of all new cases of cancer.
  • Breast cancer accounts for about one-quarter (26%) of all new cancer cases in women.
  • Colorectal cancer accounts for 13% of all new cancer cases.
  • At the beginning of 2009, there were about 838,724 Canadians living with a cancer that had been diagnosed in the previous 10 years.

Read more:

Further information the Canadian Cancer Society via:


Please visit the gateway to sensible drinking and health, for specific studies and summary papers.


Your doctor can help you figure out if you should make any changes in your drinking, and offer help and advice along the way.

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