Wine glasses Credit: Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Despite the stereotypical view of alcohol and cancer being about heavy drinkers developing liver cancer, that’s actually a relatively small part of the problem. As we’ll see below, drinking alcohol on a regular basis increases the risk of several cancers, but cutting down on booze means cutting that risk.

But for many of us, it’s the short term effects – like hangovers – that are more of an immediate concern. And with festive parties, supermarket offers and the ever-ready excuse of ‘a Christmas drink’ it’s easy to drink more during December than you normally would. Especially as some people just won’t take ‘lemonade, please’ for an answer.

So we thought it was a good time to take a look at the facts about alcohol and cancer, and share five simple tips for not overdoing it this Christmas (or indeed any other time of the year…).

It’s not just about liver cancer

In the graphic below, the bigger the circle, the more UK cases of that cancer type are caused by alcohol – and one of the things that may surprise you is how small the circle for liver cancer is:

4 ways alcohol causes cancer

4 ways alcohol causes cancer

People’s general awareness of alcohol as a risk factor for cancer is fairly low, and perhaps especially for cancers other than liver cancer.

But alcohol can damage our bodies in a variety of ways, both directly and through its effects on other things – such as oestrogen levels. In fact, one of the ways in which alcohol increases breast cancer risk is thought to be through raising levels of this hormone.

So what about breast cancer? Even light drinking can increase your risk. As you can see in the graphic below – which combines data from The Health Survey for England and estimates drawn from a large 2002 analysis of alcohol and cancer risk – the risk of breast cancer is slightly increased, even among women who drink on average one drink a day.

Alcohol and breast cancer infopgraphic

Alcohol and breast cancer

One drink has around 2 units of alcohol, though that will vary with the size and strength of your drink.

Drinking this amount of alcohol also increases the risk of mouth, throat and oesophageal cancers, in both men and women, as this research from 2013 found. And drinking larger amounts of alcohol increases the risk of these and other cancers even more.

(The government recommends women drink no more than 2-3 units in a day, and men no more than 3-4 units a day.)

But how much do we actually drink? The bar at the bottom of the graphic shows how much alcohol women say they drank on their heaviest drinking day the previous week. It’s important to note that while this is a reasonable average for England as a whole, it may well not be a typical week for an individual woman.

So for example, while nearly half of women didn’t drink last week, only a fifth of women say they drank no alcohol at all the previous year. (You can find out more about all of these figures on our new alcohol statistics page).

The same survey of English drinking habits shows that more men drink than do women, and they tend to drink more too. But still around a third of men didn’t drink in the last week, and about a seventh didn’t drink any alcohol in the last year.

But while these figures are a welcome reminder that most of us don’t get through a bottle of pinot grigio (or 5 cans of lager) a night, we need to remember the wider context of alcohol drinking in the UK. Customs clearance data on alcohol sales suggest that the amount of alcohol we drink as a nation has almost doubled since the 1960s.

And, intriguingly, the proportion of abstainers in the population has increased over that time too.

Five simple tips

So as you’ve seen from the evidence above, alcohol is an important preventable cause of cancer in the UK. Now, we emphatically don’t want to appear like we’re blaming anyone for their lifestyle (something we’ve written about before). But we do want people to know the facts, and that they can take action to stack the odds in their favour.

So whether you want to drink a bit less in the long term, or are hoping to avoid too many hangovers this Christmas, try these easy and effective ways to cut down, or at least not step up, your alcohol intake.

1) Be a party planner

As far as possible, be organised about Christmas socialising. Get it in the diary, that way you’re less likely to end up drinking 6 days in a row. If you’re already in the habit of not drinking alcohol on certain nights, try and stick with it. Or at least swap so the next day is alcohol-free instead.

It’s also worth leaving a gap between events, especially if you think there’s a chance you might drink more heavily than usual. The NHS recommends a 2-day break from alcohol after a heavy session.

2) Strength in numbers

Agree with your friends or partner how many drinks you’ll have and help one another stick to it. Use peer pressure to keep one another on track for a good night’s sleep and a better start to tomorrow.

3) Take it in turns

Make your first drink a soft one, then alternate your drinks so only every other one is alcoholic. There are plenty of tasty options to try – if you’re going to a party you could pick your favourite soft drink to take, or channel your inner Tom Cruise and show everyone your mocktail-making skills.

4) Don’t be afraid to say no…

Contrary to some party boors’ opinions, drinking is not compulsory. Not even at Christmas.

If you didn’t fancy a mince pie, or never wanted to look at another mini-hotdog, no-one would mind: same rule should apply to booze!

5) …or use some sneaky misdirection for a simpler life

Hiding the fact you’re not drinking doesn’t help challenge perceptions about booze’s place in society – but we’re not always in the mood to take a stand. For those occasions, a glass of fizzy water with ice and a slice makes for an effective decoy.

Or have an unarguable explanation for why you’re not drinking ready to hand – designated driver works well, as does medication, or perhaps even an early meeting tomorrow. But be careful – claiming pregnancy could get awkward if you’re with people you see quite often, or you’re a man, so deploy this one carefully.

But whichever ways work for you, make sure you get in the Christmas spirit – and if you have any other tips for cutting down the Christmas excess, please do share them below.