Does drinking alcohol increase your risk of cancer

Sharing a bottle of red wine with some friends or having a pint of beer in front of the TV can seem like a fairly harmless activity but evidence shows that each glass of alcohol you drink puts your health in jeopardy. According to the UK government, 24% of adults in England and Scotland are regularly drinking over the recommended amount of alcohol, increasing not only the risk of liver damage and heart disease, but also seven different types of cancer. British Journal of Cancer states that alcohol causes 3.3% of all cancer cases in the UK.

In this article, we will explore how alcohol increases your risk of up to seven different types of cancer, what you can do to cut down or stop drinking altogether and what resources are available to help you.

What is alcohol? 

There are four different types of alcohol, only one of which is suitable for consumption. Ethanol is the one we find in our wine, beer and spirits. Ethanol is made through a process called fermentation (when yeast or bacteria reacts with sugars in fruit, barley or rye, etc). The longer the fermentation, the stronger the alcohol content. Spirits also go through a process known as distillation. This is where some of the water is removed, leaving a stronger concentration of alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it can slow down your brain activity and leave you feeling drowsy and discombobulated.

The average alcohol content of different drinks is:

  • Spirits: 40%
  • Beer: 5%
  • Wine: 12%

How can alcohol cause cancer

Similar to tobacco smoke and UV radiation, alcohol is a group 1 carcinogen (i.e. a substance capable of causing cancer), which means there is sufficient evidence to show that alcohol causes cancer. It's not just heavy drinkers who are at risk. Even small amounts of alcohol can increase the risk of cancer and the more often you drink, the greater the risk. According to, somewhere between 11,500 – 12,500 new cancer cases each year in the UK are attributed to alcohol consumption. Cancer research UK believes that figure could be higher, highlighting that 17,000 UK cases of cancer in 2020 could be linked to alcohol-related.

What happens to our bodies when we drink alcohol?

  • Drinking alcohol can lead to cells in the mouth and throat absorbing harmful chemicals which makes it easier for carcinogens to get into the cell and cause damage.
  • Once alcohol is consumed, the body turns the alcohol into a chemical called acetaldehyde. This can cause damage to our cells and prevent damage repair.
  • Alcohol increases the level of some hormones such as oestrogen and insulin leading to cells within the body dividing more often which means cancerous cells are more likely to develop.
  • Alcohol can also affect the brain and nervous system, as well as the liver, kidneys, skin, and stomach. Find out more about what happens when you drink alcohol in our guide. 

For a deeper delve into how drinking alcohol can cause cancer, further details can be found on the Cancer Research UK blog How does alcohol cause cancer?

What types of cancer does alcohol cause?

Research is still ongoing to fully understand the link between cancer and alcohol, however it is now widely accepted that alcohol can cause seven different types of cancer.

  • Mouth cancer - also known as oral cancer, this is where tumours develop in a part of the mouth. It may be on the tongue, the inside of the cheeks, lips, gums or the roof of the mouth.
  • Bowel cancer - also called colon or rectal cancer. It affects the large bowel, which is made up of the colon and rectum.
  • Liver cancer - can affect any part of the liver, one of the largest organs in your body.
  • Pharyngeal cancer - includes cancer of the nasopharynx (upper throat), the oropharynx (the middle part of the throat), and the hypopharynx (the bottom part of the throat).
  • Oesophageal cancer - a type of cancer that is found anywhere in the oesophagus (sometimes called the gullet or food pipe).
  • Laryngeal cancer- a type of cancer that affects the larynx (voice box). The larynx is part of the throat found at the entrance of the windpipe.
  • Breast cancer - the most common type of cancer in the UK. It is a type of cancer that develops in breast cells.

Does drinking alcohol increase your risk of breast cancer?

The short answer to this is yes. According to Breast Cancer UK, drinking alcohol puts you at a higher risk of developing breast cancer and drinking alcohol during pregnancy may increase the risk of breast cancer in daughters. Alcohol raises circulating oestrogen levels which increases the risk of breast cancer. Around 4,400 breast cancer cases each year are caused by drinking alcohol. Alcohol doesn’t only contribute to breast cancer – it’s also linked to at least six other types of cancer in women and men.

How much is too much?

According to guidelines for alcohol consumption, produced by the UK Chief Medical Officers, men and women should not drink more than 14 units a week. 14 units of alcohol is equivalent to six standard glasses of wine or six pints of average-strength beer. However, just one pint of strong lager or a large glass of wine can contain more than three units of alcohol. You can find out the alcohol strength (ABV in %) on the bottle or can.

Tips for cutting down on alcohol

  1. Alcohol-free days. Choose specific days of the week to be alcohol-free. You can always increase the number of days gradually if you find it particularly challenging. The NHS Drink Free Days app can help you to track your intake.
  2. Clear targets. Set yourself clear targets and stick to them. You can keep a drink diary to make a note of how many units you have each day. Don’t panic or give up if you don’t meet your targets in the first couple of weeks. It will become easier and more manageable with time.
  3. Discover mocktails. On days when you are alcohol-free, why not learn how to make non-alcoholic cocktails such as virgin mojitos or non-alcoholic sangria? You could turn this into a social activity with friends and family.
  4. Alternate alcoholic beverages with water. Alternating alcoholic drinks with water can help reduce your alcohol intake, especially on a night out, and help keep you hydrated.
  5. Don’t bulk buy alcohol. It might be tempting to buy more alcohol than you are planning to consume, especially if you see your favourite tipple on special offer such as two for one. Only buy one bottle or can at a time so you have less temptation in your way to reach for another drink at home.
  6. Set a budget. If you are going to a pub or supermarket, only take a fixed amount of money to spend on alcohol to avoid the temptation of buying more.
  7. Buddy up with a friend. Not drinking when you’re around others who are drinking can be tricky. If you can team up with someone who is a non drinker or is also trying to reduce their intake you can support one another to steer clear of temptation.
  8. Don’t top-up. Continually topping up glasses makes it difficult to keep track of how much alcohol you’ve had. Wait until your glass is completely empty before having another.
  9. Don’t go for the strong stuff. Swap strong beers or wines for ones with a lower strength (ABV in %). You'll find this information on the bottle.
  10. Be realistic. Going completely cold turkey may not always be the best move. Take it a day at a time and make small changes until you are confident you can stick to your target.

Resources and Support

The team here at Livewell Dorset are committed to helping you cut back on your alcohol consumption. Our Habit Hacker tool, designed by health and psychology experts, will help you with techniques tailored specifically to you and your needs. We also have advisors and coaches on hand to help you achieve a healthier lifestyle. We've supported people across the whole of Dorset and we would love to help you too. Register or contact us today.

The NHS has lots of useful information on how to cut down on alcohol and can help you find support services in your area.Drinkaware Trust is an independent alcohol education charity that helps people make better choices about their drinking. Their website has a number of useful tools to help you cut down on your alcohol consumption.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is free to everyone and provides support to those with alcohol dependence concerns.

You can also speak to your GP who will be able to talk through your drinking habits and help find the right support for you.


It's time for me to get my health in order

View full story

How does this work?

The tailored approach LiveWell Dorset uses to come up with solutions to the things that are stopping us achieving our goals, is based upon work done by University College London developing the COM-B model of behaviour change. In this model, all behaviour is influenced by understanding a person’s capability to change, their opportunity to change and their motivation to change. By understanding which of these is the biggest barrier to change, we can tailor support accordingly. This model of behaviour change is at the centre of the support we offer, online and in person.

Your Favourites?

or register, to favourite activities that you want to try.


Is this the first time that you've used our services, or have you already registered with us? To allow us to best serve you, please confirm whether you're new to LiveWell Dorset, or if you've spoken to us before and may have an existing account.

Welcome back, it's good to hear from you again!

To speak to one of our dedicated team and get the help you require please request a call back. All call backs from this service are free of charge to both landlines and mobile.

Request a Call Back

Do you provide your consent to share your information with the LiveWell Dorset team – part of Public Health Dorset ?

When you register with LiveWell Dorset, we ask you some questions about you and your health (how much you smoke, how active you are, how much you drink and how much you weigh). We store that information and use it to shape our service offer to you – such as the advice we give or the extra services we connect you to. The only people who will see this information will be those involved in the delivery of the service and management of the data. If you would like to use extra services (such as slimming clubs and pharmacies) we have to share this information with them. For us to be able to put you in touch with these services, we must have your consent to share that information with the service (we’ll ask for that later, when if you sign up for extra services).

Before we can sign you up any further, we need to know:

  • You're happy for your personal information to be shared with LiveWell Dorset.
  • You understand what information may be shared and why, and that at times, our contact to you may be supported by technology partners, who have the same data protection standards and safeguards as we do
  • You acknowledge that you can withdraw your consent at any time by informing LiveWell Dorset.
  • You understand that if you do not give consent or withdraw consent then it could be difficult for us to connect you some of the services we offer.

If you require any more information to help you make your choice then please contact the LiveWell Dorset team on 0800 840 1628. All telephone conversations at LiveWell Dorset are recorded for quality and training purposes, and stored whilst you are registered as active within the service.

Yes I consent

Sorry we can't continue at the moment

Unfortunately we need your permission to store your personal information to help us to assess the best support we could provide or signpost you to. If at any stage you change your mind and are happy to provide your personal information please come back and visit us again.