Alcohol and cancer prevention

Does alcohol increase your cancer risk?

There are lots of good health reasons for cutting down on alcohol and reducing your cancer risk is one of them.

Alcohol is linked to six common cancers including mouth and throat, bowel and breast cancer.

To help prevent cancer, leading experts advise not drinking alcohol at all. If you do drink, limit alcoholic drinks and follow national guidelines. In the UK, the recommendation is to drink no more than 14 units a week, spread over at least three days - this is roughly equal to seven drinks a week.

Lots of people in the UK drink more than this, but cutting down could make a big difference to your health.

For example, we could prevent about 1 in 5 breast cancer cases – 11,000 cases a year – by not drinking alcohol.

What is a ‘drink’?

As a rough guide, a drink contains about 10-15g of pure alcohol, so one drink is the same as:

  • Half a pint of normal strength beer, lager or cider
  • One 25ml measure of spirits such as vodka or whisky
  • One small 125ml glass of wine

This information is a helpful guide, but be aware that the serving size and strength of some alcoholic drinks has recently increased, making it easy to drink more alcohol than you realise.

Our Head of Health Information talks to the BBC about alcohol and cancer prevention

What’s the evidence on alcohol and cancer?

We have strong scientific evidence that all types of alcoholic drinks are a cause of several types of cancer:

Research also shows that alcohol is particularly harmful when combined with smoking.

Scientists are still researching how alcohol can lead to cancer. One theory is that alcohol can directly damage our DNA, increasing our risk of cancer.

Are there any health benefits to drinking alcohol?

There is evidence that consuming up to two alcoholic drinks a day may lower the risk of developing kidney cancer, however we do not recommend consuming alcohol to reduce the risk of kidney cancer as it increases the risk of six other cancers.

You might also have heard that some alcohol, like red wine, is good for your heart in small amounts. However, the latest evidence now suggests that the benefits of drinking alcohol for heart health are less than previously thought and only apply to women over 55 – and even for them, the greatest reduction in risk is seen in women who drink 5 units or less a week.

Remember; a healthy diet and lifestyle can reduce the risk of both cancer and heart disease.

Does alcohol cause weight gain?

You might be surprised by how high in calories alcoholic drinks can be. Cutting down on the amount you drink can be a really good step in helping you lose weight or stay a healthy weight, which is one of the most important ways of reducing your cancer risk. Find out more about the link between weight and cancer.

Try our handy alcohol calorie calculator to see how alcohol can add to your calorie intake.

Tips for reducing your alcohol intake

  • Opt for the smallest serving size - avoid double measures of spirits, which are often encouraged as ‘better value’
  • Dilute alcoholic drinks, or opt for low-calorie or low-alcohol alternatives - for example, opt for a white wine spritzer made with soda water rather than a full glass of wine
  • Aim to keep a few days each week alcohol-free