Cancer and Alcohol: What You Should Know

Medically Reviewed By: Kimmie Ng, MD, MPH
  • Studies have linked alcohol consumption to the development of certain cancers.
  • The American Cancer Society recommends no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.

Several studies have linked alcohol consumption to a higher risk of many cancers, including breast, mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, and colon and rectum. The risk rises with the amount of alcohol consumed. The type of beverage doesn’t matter – the culprit is the alcohol itself.

Breast cancer and alcohol

Many studies have specifically linked alcohol consumption to increased breast cancer risk. An analysis of data from 53 studies concluded that as the average number of alcoholic drinks consumed each day rose, so did the breast cancer risk. Women who had two to three drinks a day had a 20 percent higher risk of breast cancer compared to women who didn’t drink at all.

Recommended consumption

The American Cancer Society recommends no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. The guideline is lower for women because of their smaller body size and because they metabolize alcohol more slowly than men.

Drinking during treatment

Whether it’s safe to drink alcoholic beverages during treatment with chemotherapy depends on a number of factors, including which drugs the patient is receiving. Alcohol can interfere with the way some chemotherapy drugs work, so patients should speak with their doctors about any potential side effects of drinking during treatment.

Kimmie Ng, MD, MPH, a medical oncologist in Dana-Farber’s Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center, says she is often asked about drinking during treatment. Her recommendation is that an occasional drink is OK, but not more than one drink “on an occasional basis — not daily.” Ng says she is conservative because many of her patients have metastases in their liver and are being treated with chemotherapy agents that may affect the liver. She notes that individual physicians may differ in their guidelines.

As for drinking after treatment, there isn’t much known about whether the odds of a cancer recurrence are affected by alcohol use after treatment has ended. This is a topic best discussed between patient and physician.

About the Medical Reviewer

Kimmie Ng, MD, MPH

Dr. Ng is the Founding Director of the Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center, and Director of Clinical and Biospecimen Research in the Center for Gastrointestinal Oncology. Her research focuses on the identification of dietary, molecular, and genetic predictors of improved survival in patients with colorectal cancer, with particular interest in the vitamin D and inflammatory pathways.

She also conducts translational research investigating novel therapeutics, biomarkers of response and resistance to treatment, and the microbiome. She is the recipient of numerous NIH-funded grants and private foundation awards and leads several national multi-center clinical trials. She co-leads the Colorectal Cancer Working Group in the Gastrointestinal Committee of the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology cooperative group and serves as a member of the Gastrointestinal Steering Committee of the National Cancer Institute.