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Cancer and Alcohol Blog - 28th Feb

Published on 28 February 2024 10:38 AM

Did you know that drinking alcohol is proven to cause at least seven different types of cancer, according to Cancer Research UK? Many people are unaware of the close connection between alcohol and cancer, but scientists have shown direct links between alcohol and many types of cancer; not just liver cancer, but also breast and bowel cancer - two of the most common types. If you drink regularly, your mouth, throat and food pipe are in close contact with alcohol, thus increasing your chances of cancer developing in these areas of the body too.

Cornwall is said to have a higher level of high-risk drinkers than the national rate. According to Safer Cornwall, almost 30% of adults in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (IoS) drink above recommended healthy levels of alcohol. Adults in Cornwall are more likely to binge drink and our alcohol related hospital admissions higher too. According to With You, a mental health and addiction charity (formerly Addaction then We Are With You), alcohol consumption is on the rise here in Cornwall. Drinking is being increasingly used as a coping mechanism to deal with mental health struggles and rising cost-of-living pressures. They found that some Brits are even prioritising buying alcohol over purchasing food, clothing or paying essential gas and electric bills.

“Is there a safe level of drinking?”

In short, the answer is no. No amount of alcohol is safe and even low-level drinking can damage your health. Whilst the highest risks are associated with the heaviest drinking, just one drink a day increases your cancer risk. Despite what you may have heard, your drink of choice is irrelevant, as it is the alcohol itself that causes harm. Wines, spirits, beers, whichever you prefer - all types of alcohol can cause cancer.

“What if I drink and smoke, too?”

According to Drink Aware, drinking and smoking combined results in a much higher risk - about 5x higher - than using alcohol or tobacco alone. This is because tobacco and alcohol combined cause more significant damage to your cells. Tobacco is highly carcinogenic and alcohol can make the mouth more absorbent, allowing these carcinogens to enter the body more freely. Alarmingly, the risk of developing cancer is up to 30x higher for heavy users of alcohol and tobacco, according to Drink Aware.

If you do choose to drink alcohol, the recommendation from the Chief Medical Officer for adult men and women is no more than 14 units a week. This is to keep health risks from alcohol to a lower level, but the advice is that these units should be spread across three days or more, with no binge drinking, and there should several drink-free days in your week too. Try to set a limit on how much you drink, drink more slowly and with food, and alternate with water or non-alcoholic drinks to reduce your health risks.


Be aware that drinking a standard glass of wine (175ml) or a pint of beer every day would exceed 14 units of alcohol a week. You can do a drinking check here or visit Alcohol Change UK’s site for an easy-to-use unit calculator.

Alcoholic drinks come in different strengths and sizes, but 14 units is equal to:

  • 6 pints of beer or cider (4% strength).
  • 6 medium (175ml) glass of wine (13% strength).
  • 12 single measures (25ml) spirits such as gin or vodka (40% strength).

Find more information from the NHS on units here or check out this video from Cornwall Council on weekly alcohol guidelines.

Research commissioned by the charity With You found that nearly two thirds of adults in Cornwall are opting to buy alcohol from supermarkets than from pubs, bars and restaurants, as it’s cheaper – but often has higher alcohol content. When we bulk buy alcohol, we are more likely to binge drink over a shorter timespan, the research shows.

Alcohol and mental health

Sue Clark from With You says that drinking out of sight at home more leads to unhealthy relationships with alcohol, with many using drinking to cope with depression and anxiety. According to research from With You, those with mental illness are more likely to have alcohol problems. Drinking is a quick but deceptive fix – what many don’t realise is that alcohol is a depressant and can worsen stress levels and mental health conditions.

While drinking might help you to relax, feel more confident or forget about your worries in the short-term, it can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in your brain), increasing negative feelings like anger and depression. Hence why people who drink alcohol are more likely to develop mental health problems, according to With You, with anxiety and depression more common in heavy drinkers. We can also behave more recklessly or aggressively when we drink. According to the NHS, research has found strong links between alcohol misuse and self-harming, including suicide.

Moreover, alcohol can cause migraines, stomach upsets and sleep issues, which can make stress harder to cope with. It can make you behave more recklessly or aggressively, have accidents, and makes stress harder to deal with. Long-term alcohol misuse can even lead to relationship break-ups, unemployment, money difficulties and homelessness. If you are reliant on alcohol to cope with difficult feelings (i.e. self-medicating), you are likely to end up needing to drink more and more over time to cope and relieve these feelings. This can lead to a cycle of dependence, which is very damaging to your health – read more about alcohol dependency here.

Your liver and cancer

We don’t often give the liver a second thought, but it is the largest and heaviest organ in our body, and one of the most important. It’s like our body’s factory, working tirelessly behind the scenes to filter everything that we eat or consume, whether it's food, alcohol, medicine, or toxins. It has around 500 vital jobs and even helps some of our other organs to do their jobs too.

Some critical functions of the liver:

  • Breaking down and removing harmful toxins/substances in our blood, so they can’t damage other parts of the body.
  • Processing food, converting it to energy and storing nutrients.
  • Resisting infection and aiding digestion.
  • Controlling blood sugar levels.
  • Regulating your metabolism.

The liver is a resilient organ, but it can be severely challenged and damaged by long-term/heavy alcohol consumption. This can cause a build-up of scar tissue (known as ‘cirrhosis’ of the liver). This stops the liver from working as efficiently and can progress to liver cancer. If you are diagnosed with this, you must stop drinking alcohol altogether or your risk will continue to rise.

Inevitably, your risk increases the more you drink (especially if you’re a regular drinker) but the liver still produces toxic substances from alcohol from low levels of drinking, before cirrhosis has occurred. At least 400 cases of liver cancer each year in the UK are caused by alcohol, according to Drink Aware, and most of these are in men. Watch this video  to find out more about the crucial role of the liver and the harmful effects alcohol can have.


“How does alcohol actually cause cancer?”

Drinking alcohol can cause a surge in hormones such as oestrogen and insulin. These hormones trigger your body cells to divide more frequently, thus increasing your chances of cancer developing. Oestrogen has proven links with breast cancer (the most common cancer in the UK) and according to Cancer Research UK, alcohol consumption is one of the prime risk factors for breast cancer.

When you drink alcohol, your body converts it into the toxic chemical acetaldehyde, which is harmful in the body. Alcohol is mainly processed by the liver, but cells in the mouth can metabolise alcohol, so acetaldehyde accumulates there too. This substance can damage your DNA cells and prevent your cells from repairing this damage, which can result in cancer developing in these areas.

Alcohol can also modify different cells around your body e.g. in the throat and mouth, making it much simpler for harmful carcinogens (cancer-causing substances like alcohol and tobacco) to be absorbed and harm your body. Alcohol can diminish your body’s natural defences too, meaning that your cells become more vulnerable to cancer.

How can I cut down on alcohol and lower my risk?

Changing your habits is tough, but here are some tips to try:

  • If you’re a regular drinker, start by having some alcohol-free days. Having breaks during the week will quickly help reduce the amount you’re drinking.
  • Opt for smaller servings by swapping your large glasses for smaller ones.
  • Try swapping every other alcoholic drink for a soft drink.
  • To prevent peer pressure in social situations, choose non-alcoholic beverages that look like alcohol; for example, sparkling water instead of gin and tonic, or non-alcoholic beer in a pint glass! Club Soda has more tips on socialising sober.
  • Avoid keeping a stock of booze at home and have no more than one glass with your dinner.
  • Stay hydrated – drink plenty of water during the day and in between alcoholic beverages.
  • If you tend to reach for a drink to unwind, when you’re feeling anxious, stressed or down, try alternative ways to relax: a walk, exercise, listening to music, yoga, catching up with friends/family or any hobby you enjoy.
  • Similarly, if you usually celebrate with a drink, think about other ways you can treat yourself that are better for your mind and body.
  • Avoid situations where you’ll be tempted to drink – for example, change the places that you go to socialise in. If you usually head to the pub with friends, try meeting for a coffee, going for a walk, the cinema, bowling, an evening class or other activity instead.
  • Talk to people you trust about your plans; they can help encourage you along the way and support you to stay on track.

The NHS website has more tips on cutting down. There are multiple benefits to cutting back on alcohol, including weight management. Alcoholic drinks are high in calories, so cutting back on how much you drink can really help reduce your calorie intake.

Benefits of cutting down for your mind and body include:

  • Better sleep.
  • Increased energy levels.
  • More focus and concentration.
  • Improved mood.
  • Lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Reduced risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Better memory.
  • Better skin.
  • More money and time.
  • A happier stomach.
  • Lower risk of damage to the brain or nervous system or brain.

“I’ve heard before that there are some health benefits from alcohol?”

The evidence for any health benefits from drinking alcohol is very ambiguous. What we do know for certain is that no level of drinking is risk-free, and your risk of developing cancer rises even from drinking small amounts. Whatever your drinking habits, cutting back will reduce your cancer risk. 

On a positive note, there is some evidence to suggest that those who quit drinking can reverse their risk of some types of cancer, and that your risk decreases the longer you avoid alcohol for.

Where can I get help and support?

  • Talk to your GP. It might feel difficult, but they will have heard from lots of others going through similar experiences and will want to help you. They can check your physical health and put you in touch with local support, such as local NHS alcohol addiction support services. You can also ask about other support groups or talking therapies to help you.
  • If you’re a heavy drinker, you should seek advice from your GP or local alcohol support service on how to stop drinking safely, because stopping completely can be dangerous if you are alcohol dependent. Your GP can give you advice and/or medication to help you do this in a safe way.
  • Download the #Drinksmeter app to monitor your drinking levels or visit for more info. The app takes into consideration your personal circumstances (i.e. mental health, pregnancy and other health issues which could affect your reaction to alcohol). It will offer tailored advice, support and info that meets the needs of your personal drinking habits.
  • For free support and advice on cutting back on drinking, contact the Cornwall Drugs and Alcohol charity With You on 0333 2000 325 or visit their website here. You can chat for free and confidentially about alcohol, drugs and mental health with a trained advisor through We are With You’s webchat service at
  • Call the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Drug and Alcohol Action Team (DAAT) on 01726 223400 or 07816 062262. Or email them at
  • If money worries are getting you down, cutting back on the amount you drink is not only be beneficial to your health and wellbeing, but can save you money For information about support available for Cornwall residents regarding the cost of living crisis, visit here.

You can also have a look at the organisations and useful resources below:

  • Al-Anon offers support and understanding to the family and friends of problem drinkers.
  • Alcohol Change UK campaign for better alcohol policies and improved support for people whose lives are affected by alcohol problems. They offer help and support if you want to change your drinking habits.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) runs free self-help groups for anyone who thinks they have a drink problem.
  • Drinkaware provides advice, information and tools to help people make better choices about their drinking.
  • Drinkline is a free, confidential helpline for anyone worried about their drinking or someone else’s. Call 0300 123 1100.
  • SMART Recovery groups help people build their motivation to change and offer tools and techniques to help with their recovery.
  • Turning Point offers tailored support to people with drug or alcohol problems. This could be advice, medical treatment, peer support, social activities or help getting back into work, for example.

LGBTQIA+ support services:

  • The Gay and Sober website has regularly updated information on online LGBTQIA+ recovery group meetings.
  • The LGBT Foundation provides information, support and advice to LGBTQIA+ people. They offer one-to-one and group support for people concerned about their drug or alcohol use.
  • Alcohol Change UK has more resources for LGBTQIA+ people who drink in moderation or don’t drink.

That's it for this week, and we chat again soon. If you need support, information, or a helping hand, don't hesistate to contact the Community Gateway.