Supporting Research on the Link Between Alcohol and Cancer

An image of a stethoscope, a red ribbon, a green ribbon, a pink ribbon, a dark blue ribbon, a light blue ribbon, and a yellow ribbon that represent different types of cancer awareness.

During National Cancer Prevention Month this February, NIAAA continues its efforts to advance knowledge about the link between alcohol and cancer. In the United States, alcohol use is estimated to be the third-largest modifiable risk factor for cancer, behind only cigarette smoking and excess body weight. Research has shown that alcohol misuse increases the risk of cancers of the oral cavity, esophagus, larynx, pharynx, liver, colon, and rectum. Studies have also shown that even moderate alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer in women.

In a recent effort to foster investigator-initiated research in this area, NIAAA and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) jointly issued a notice of special interest (NOSI, NOT-CA-20-034) to encourage research on the relationships between alcohol and cancer, spanning biological and behavioral mechanisms; health disparities; and cancer prevention, treatment, and survivorship.

An example of an area of research that the NOSI encourages is epidemiological analyses across the lifespan. Most studies to date have looked at patterns of alcohol use only during a limited age range. By looking across larger swaths of the lifespan, researchers can determine how drinking patterns and amounts at different stages of life—such as binge drinking at younger ages or sustained patterns of moderate alcohol consumption—are associated with cancer risk. The NOSI also encourages researchers to explore whether people may be more vulnerable to the influence of alcohol use in different developmental and hormonal transition periods.

Another area of interest is the effects of light or moderate alcohol consumption on cancer risk. For example, as noted above, research has shown a small but important association between alcohol consumption and breast cancer—for each 10 grams of alcohol consumed (less than 1 standard drink) per day, a woman’s chance of developing postmenopausal breast cancer increases by around 9 percent. This NOSI identifies a need for additional research to clarify the relationship between alcohol dosage and breast cancer risk, as well as research to show how alcohol can lead to breast cancer.

Visit the NOSI webpage for more information.

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Terry, M.B.; Michels, K.B.; Brody, J.G.; Byrne, C.; Chen, S.; Jerry, D.J.; Malecki, K.M.C.; Martin, M.B.; Miller, R.L.; Neuhausen, S.L.; Silk, K.; Trentham-Dietz, A.; and Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program. Environmental exposures during windows of susceptibility for breast cancer: A framework for prevention research. Breast Cancer Research 21(1):96, 2019. PMID: 31429809

World Cancer Research Fund, American Institute for Cancer Research. Alcoholic Drinks and the Risk of Cancer. Continuous Update Project, 2018. Figure 5.12: CUP Dose-Response Meta-Analysis for the Risk of Postmenopausal Breast Cancer, per 10 Grams Increase in Alcohol (as ethanol) Consumed by Day. Available at: Accessed January 8, 2021.