Alcoholism, Alcohol Abuse, and Cancer

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are two conditions that stem from excessive alcohol intake. Technically speaking, alcoholics have an ongoing physical dependence on alcohol, while alcohol abusers have drinking problems that don’t involve physical dependence. Cancer is the general term for cells in the body that grow out of control and damage healthy organs and structures; more than 500,000 people in the US die from some form of this disease each year. Forms of cancer clearly associated with habitual consumption of large amounts of alcohol include cancers of the liver, breast, mouth, esophagus, throat, larynx (voice box), rectum, and colon.

Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse Basics

Excessive alcohol consumption is more or less a given in active cases of alcoholism. However, while alcohol abusers don’t have the same physical compulsion to drink as alcoholics, by definition they also engage in patterns of alcohol use that can harm their health. For example, some alcohol abusers engage in a practice called binge drinking, which involves bouts of excessive alcohol consumption that seriously, if only temporarily, tax normal liver function. Currently, alcohol abuse and alcoholism (alcohol dependence) are classified as separate disorders by the American Psychiatric Association, which issues definitions for diseases that have a substantial impact on mental health. However, in part because of inconsistent application of these terms, the Association will probably group alcoholism and alcohol abuse under a single heading, called alcohol use disorder, when it revises its general guidelines in 2013.

Cancer Basics

Cancer occurs when unusual changes develop in the growth cycles of various cells in the body. Instead of listening to chemical and physical signals to slow down or limit their growth, or end their natural life cycles, these cells continue growing and expand beyond the space they usually occupy. Doctors refer to this uncontrolled cell growth as a malignancy. The vast majority of cells in your body can undergo cancerous changes, and the specific form of cancer present depends upon the type of cell affected, as well as the affected cells’ location inside the body. Specific symptoms of cancer also vary according to the type of cell affected and location of a malignancy. However, symptoms that commonly appear in most forms of the disease include appetite loss, fever, unexplained weight loss, unexplained fatigue, chills, night sweats, and a general feeling of poor health known as malaise.

Alcohol’s Role in Cancer Formation

No one knows exactly how the presence of alcohol increases cancer risks, the American Cancer Society explains. However, several likely mechanisms have been identified. First, alcohol-related damage in certain cells may lead to DNA alterations that trigger the onset of cancer. Alcohol may also act as a supporting agent for cancer-causing components in tobacco smoke or other harmful substances. In addition, alcohol may increase the likelihood of cancer by increasing levels of the hormone called estrogen, or by decreasing normal absorption of an essential vitamin called folate or folic acid (vitamin B9). People who drink heavily also tend to gain weight; in turn, this weight gain can increase a person’s risks for certain types of cancer.

Links to Specific Types of Cancer

Any habitual consumption of alcohol above moderate levels (one drink a day for women; two drinks a day for men) can degrade human health and potentially increase cancer risks. Generally speaking, the more you drink on a regular basis, the higher your risks for specific cancers rise. Some of the clearest links between excessive alcohol intake and cancer occur in cancers that affect parts of the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract, including your mouth, throat, larynx and esophagus. People who drink and smoke simultaneously have higher risks for these cancers than people who only drink or only smoke. Regular drinking can also increase risks for cancers of the colon and anus in the lower GI tract. Habitual heavy drinking is strongly associated with liver impairment and liver inflammation, which in turn can trigger the onset of liver cancer. Women who drink even moderate amounts of alcohol several times a week can potentially increase their risks for developing breast cancer. Women who drink regularly and have vitamin B9 deficiencies may have even higher risks than other women drinkers.


Some people mistakenly believe that it’s safer to drink large amounts of certain types of alcohol rather than others. For instance, they may believe that heavy wine consumption poses fewer risks than heavy liquor consumption. However, regardless of the beverage under consideration, all alcoholic drinks contain the same key substance, called ethyl alcohol or ethanol. When it comes to cancer risks, the level and frequency of ethyl alcohol consumption are the most important factors, not the particular type of alcoholic beverage you consume.

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