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Alcohol and Cancer

Is there a link between alcohol and cancer risk?

Yes. When it comes to cancer risk, there are no ‘safe’ alcohol limits. But most cancers caused by alcohol occur when you drink over the recommended limits. The risk of getting cancer from alcohol is more affected by the amount you drink rather than the kind of alcohol you drink. The more you drink, the greater the risk. All alcoholic drinks increase your cancer risk.

You increase your risk of cancer if you start to drink early in life, or if you keep drinking over a long period of time, or if you drink heavily.

What cancers are caused by alcohol?

Alcohol can cause cancer of the mouth, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx) and gullet (oesophagus). It can also cause cancer of the breast, large bowel (colorectum) and the liver.

How many cancers are caused by alcohol in Ireland?

Around 1,000 cancers diagnosed in Ireland every year are caused by alcohol. Overall, 10% of all cancers in men and 3% in women are caused by alcohol.

Is the risk the same for all cancers?
No. The risk of getting cancer from alcohol varies for different cancers. Alcohol impacts more on cancers of the mouth, throat and digestive system. For example:

How does alcohol cause cancer?

Alcohol is broken down in the body to a chemical called acetylaldehyde. (Sounds like ‘a seat ill alda hide’.). Acetylaldehyde is a ‘carcinogen’ which is a cancer causing chemical. Alcohol also works in other ways to increase cancer risk:

How can I reduce my risk?

Avoiding alcohol altogether or drinking within the recommended limits will greatly reduce your risk of getting cancer

What are the recommended limits?

The Department of Health has set low-risk drinking guidelines for adults. The weekly limits for adults are:

What is a standard drink?
In Ireland, a standard alcoholic drink contains about 10 grams of pure alcohol. A standard drink is:

A standard drink (SD) measure

Your liver can only remove about one standard drink per hour.

Is there anything else I should know?

Do these limits also apply to people at higher risk of cancer?

No. These limits apply to the general population. Some people are at higher risk of cancer than others. For example, you might have a strong family history of cancer or you might have had cancer in the past. Your risk is higher, therefore, than someone without the family history or previous illness. You might consider avoiding alcohol altogether or cutting back to around three standard drinks a week.

Some people have a higher risk of cancer for other reasons. For example, if you have hepatitis B or C, you have a higher risk of liver cancer. For this reason, you should avoid alcohol.

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