We’re tackling some of the most frequently asked questions about alcohol and cancer. From working out what on earth a unit of alcohol is, to clearing up some myths about popular hangover cures, here’s what you need to know about alcohol and cancer:
1. What has alcohol got to do with cancer?
It’s a fair question – because only 1 in 10 people know that alcohol is linked to cancer. To be more specific, alcohol increases the risk of 7 types of cancer, including some of the most common, such as breast and bowel cancer. Not everyone who drinks alcohol will develop cancer. But on the whole, scientists have found that some cancers are more common in people who drink alcohol.
2. Are some types of alcohol better for you?
No type of alcohol is better or worse than another. It’s the alcohol itself that leads to the damage, regardless of whether it’s in wine, beer or spirits. So the more you cut down on the total amount of alcohol you drink, the lower your risk.
3. Isn’t it good for your heart?
There have been studies that suggested drinking a little bit of alcohol may be good for your heart. But an analysis carried out as part of the Chief Medical Officer’s review of the alcohol guidelines in 2016 showed that any potential benefits of drinking alcohol would only be seen in a very small group of the general population. Specifically, women aged 55 and over, who drink very little (about 5 units a week – more on what these are later). Because of that, the latest government guidelines clearly state that drinking for health reasons isn’t recommended. Sorry.
4. What are the benefits of going dry for a month?
Not drinking alcohol for a month can have lots of perks. You might get a fresh outlook on how much you drink, you’ll probably save some money, and cutting the boozy calories could help you lose weight too. And the good news is, the benefits don’t have to stop when the month is over. If you keep it up and drink less in the long term, it could make a real difference to your health – including reducing your risk of cancer.
5. But how does alcohol actually cause cancer?
As we’ve written about before, this isn’t fully understood. But there are three main theories:
- Acetaldehyde – When we drink alcohol, our bodies break it down into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. This chemical can cause cancer by damaging the DNA inside cells and stopping them from repairing the damage.
- Hormones – alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones in the body, such as oestrogen. And some cancer cells can use these hormones as fuel to help them grow. This might explain why alcohol increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
- Absorption – alcohol makes it easier for cells in the mouth and throat to absorb other cancer-causing chemicals. This is one reason why people who drink and smoke are at much higher risk of cancer.
6. Is binge drinking worse for you?
It’s likely to give you a worse hangover – and will certainly increase the risk of accidents and injuries. But if we’re talking about cancer risk, at the moment, the picture isn’t clear. Most of the research has looked at the amount of alcohol people drink in total and how this affects cancer risk. So far, evidence suggests that the more alcohol you drink, the higher the risk of cancer – whether you drink it all in one go or a bit at a time.
7. Do hangover remedies really work?
Hair of the dog? A fried breakfast? Everyone has an idea of the best way to get rid of that pounding headache and woolly mouth. We’ve written about some of the most popular hangover cures before but, *spoiler alert*, they don’t work. Neither for the hangovers nor the longer term health harms of alcohol. There is one fail-safe method to avoid a hangover though – drinking less booze. Sorry (again).
8. What are the Government guidelines on alcohol?
In the UK, both men and women are advised to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. The guidelines, updated this year, stress that even low levels of drinking can increase the risk of some cancers. Drinking within the limits keeps the health risks low, so don’t see the 14 units as a target – the less you drink, the lower your risk.
9. What’s a unit?
Unfortunately, a unit of alcohol is not the same as a drink. And with so many different drinks available, from pints to shots to a cosmopolitan, tracking the number of units you’re drinking can quickly become confusing. To work out the units, you’ll need to look at the size and strength of your drink. For example, a pint of 3.5% beer has around 2 units of alcohol, whereas the same volume of 5% beer has almost 3 units. Take a look at Alcohol Change UK’s unit calculator, or our graphic below, to find out how many units are in your favourite drink – you might be surprised.
10. What can I do to cut down?
Cutting down on how much you drink can be tough, especially when so many of our social occasions revolve around alcohol. But there are things you can do to make it easier to cut back:
- Buddy up – agree to cut down with a friend or partner and help each other stick to the plan.
- Don’t stock up – it’s often way too easy to automatically reach for a pint or glass of red at the end of the day. If it’s not in the cupboard already, it might make you think twice about how much you really want it.
- Smaller servings or a less alcoholic drink – reduce your units by choosing a smaller glass of wine, a lower strength drink, or make your beer a shandy.
- Stay out of rounds, and in charge – drink at your own pace, instead of feeling pressured to keep up with the fastest drinker in the group.
Katie Edmunds is a health information officer at Cancer Research UK
Read more about alcohol and cancer on our health pages.
Eric Littman December 2, 2016
My first reaction is “Leave me Alone.” Thoroughly fed up and totally confused because it seems that there is no escape. You are going to die regardless. I understand that alcohol can cause extreme social problems but I still prefer to see someone having a social drink rather than seeing them smoke. Not only do smokers screw up their lungs but they are also some of the worst litter bugs on the planet. The air, the food, the stress, the products we use. You have to ask “Why bother being born?” Since having cancer and undergoing the treatment my entire ability to enjoy food and drink has been altered but thankfully I am now able at times to again enjoy a drink. I believe they used to serve it to patients in hospital.
Christopher Luckson December 1, 2016
I’ve never been much of a drinker. Once month I might decide I fancy a beer. Eating and drinking in moderation has always been a key principle of mine, instead of cutting out every pleasure in life just on the off chance is might harm my body.
That’s all well and good, but then what is life with our comforts and pleasures cut out?
Julia Smith December 1, 2016
Very useful information, thank you. I do enjoy a glass of wine with my meal at the end of the day and my hubby has a beer. Everything in moderation. In an ideal world, it would be nice if they could invent a drink that tastes as pleasant as wine, etc., without the alcohol. Wouldn’t that be nice.
Samuel Ayisi Shoetan. December 1, 2016
Excellent piece of information-simple to understand- can be passed on easily to family & friends or anybody one is concern with. This can even be disseminated to students in schools.
Nancy lundy December 1, 2016
Good advice casual reminder to all
Mel B December 1, 2016
Really good article explaining the facts. We are not big drinkers but usually get a few bottles in over the festive period. This article has made me think again and instead it will be virgin cocktails and Bucks Fizz without the fizz!
Jo R December 1, 2016
As ever, Cancer Research produces a very clear, easy to understand piece of information. Also well-timed for me as planned to celebrate my discharge (7 years since chemo) with a bottle at the weekend – perhaps I’ll just make it a glass!
Cathy December 1, 2016
Good article. I am recovering from Breast cancer. I was a heavy wine drinker for many, many years. I also had a pre-cancerous bowel polyp some years ago. \It just made sense to quit drinking now to give my body the best chance it has of recovery…..I didn;t find it easy to quit to be honest, but after 20 months it is now now a problem……alcohol actually is a nasty drug, if it were any other drug there would not be all this debate about us “needing it” to de-stress, etc. |It is the media, and the alcohol producers who put it across as a socially acceptable drug (and the Government makes a lot of revenue out of it too) – Alcohol is extremely toxic to us, on physical, psychological and social levels……….
James O December 1, 2016
Probably the best article I have read on the subject – and easily understood.
Wendy December 1, 2016
All very interesting. I used to like a glass of wine or two but could stomach beer. Since I moved to a village with it’s own brewery I’ve taken to drinking a pint or two of real ale and find I can stomach it better than wine, which now goes straight to my head and makes me quite ill. Wine gave me a sore head next day whereas beer seems very kind to me. However, I always drink a glass of water before I go to sleep to help my internal organs cope, and it really seems to work. No side effects!
Linda A December 1, 2016
My mum sadly passed away last October from cancer of the oesophagus and liver due to her alcoholism. She died 10 days after diagnosis.
Lisa Lawrence December 1, 2016
Very good interesting article, certainly shouts awareness to everyone.
Fiona Newton December 1, 2016
A really useful reminder put over in a way people can relate to. What puzzles me is don’t many people find their tolerance to alcohol decreases with age, I’m in my 50’s and enjoy a couple of small glasses of wine but feel the worse for any more, although I had a higher tolerance when I was younger.
Jim Clark December 1, 2016
We don’t drink and are often amazed at the amount of booze people buy when we are at the checkout. What a waste of money.
Debbie Green December 1, 2016
I am rather confused with the spirit measures a large double 35ml x2 ???
A standard measure is 25 ml and a Double 50 ml ! Where did 35 ml come from???
Suepofftheday December 1, 2016
What if you don’t drink alcohol at all. Can that be harmful?
billy December 1, 2016
Alcohol is the drug of the masses, and in our troubled world of today with all its problems and daily stresses, it has to be recognized that without it as a destressor, many of us would be visiting the doctor for tranquilisers ,or other medicine to wind down at the end of a difficult day…Reality check here….we need to deal with the causation of why most of us drink too much, its us and our difficult lives which are the problem, not the drink. Mines a pint
Dinalva Pessoa December 1, 2016
Thanks for the useful article. I hardly drink but have members of my family too fond of beer, wine and cocktail. I will definitely share this on my Facebook page, hoping the my young nieces and nephews will read it.
Kevin December 1, 2016
I gave up alcohol around four years ago. At the time I was drinking almost every day and consuming many units. My son was four years old at the time and one day I realised what a bad example I must be setting and how much much my”wee man”, needed me.if that’s not a good enough reason then I don’t know what will be
Julie November 30, 2016
I’m just recovering from breast cancer, and I do like a tipple now and again. However, having read this information I’m considering going alcohol free. I certainly don’t want to get any kind of secondary cancer.
I found the email extremely informative.
Neil November 30, 2016
I’m an alcoholic but have stayed sober for 6 month now and feel a lot healthier for it now I need to quit smoking.
James Hawes November 30, 2016
Kathryn Cunningham November 30, 2016
Thank you; l found all this info very hepful.
summerabbas November 18, 2016
You refer to a “small” glass of wine as 175ml yet pubs, restaurants and bars etc. are obliged to offer a 125ml sized glass of wine yet they rarely advertise or promote this for obvious reasons. Perhaps we should be campaigning to ensure that this is advertised and made available and also that people are aware of it. Maybe more would drink less if this was widely available and people understood that the 175ml is, in fact, a medium sized glass of wine?
summerabbas November 18, 2016
Very nice information