Is It Okay to Drink Alcohol with Cancer?

Alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer, and spirits (like brandy, gin, whiskey, and tequila) have been linked to several types of cancer, but before we get into the research-based recommendations, let’s review what we mean by an alcoholic drink.  

Alcoholic beverages contain something called ethanol, which is the type of alcohol that forms when fruits and grains are fermented. Ethanol is found in all alcoholic drinks, but the concentration varies by type of drink.  

The chart below shows the difference in percentages of ethanol (alcohol). Regular beer contains about 5%, wine contains about 12%, and spirits (also known as hard liquor) contain 40% or more alcohol.   

In the U.S. a standard drink is about 14 grams of ethanol. This is the amount typically found in 12 oz. of regular beer, 5 oz. of wine, or 1.5 oz. of distilled spirits.  

Understanding the amount of ethanol per serving of an alcoholic drink is important because research has identified some cut-off levels where cancer risk increases based on the number of drinks consumed. Let’s dive into those details.  

What Research Says about Alcohol and Cancer

There is strong evidence that drinking alcoholic beverages increases the risk of eight types of cancer: mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophageal (squamous cell), breast, colorectal, stomach, and liver cancers. These studies generally find any amount of alcohol increases cancer risk. 

In the last few years, research has identified some levels of ethanol intake are linked to certain cancers. For example, drinking 30 grams or more of ethanol daily (the equivalent of two drinks) is strongly associated with colorectal cancer, and drinking 45 grams or more of ethanol daily (three drinks or more per day) is linked to stomach and liver cancer.  

Alcohol Intake after a Cancer Diagnosis 

Studies about alcohol intake after a cancer diagnosis have mixed results. What’s clear is that a regular pattern of drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer recurrence and poor outcomes. This doesn’t mean people with cancer can never have a drink; however, it may be best to limit the amount and frequency of alcohol intake.  

Another consideration is when drinking alcohol is combined with smoking tobacco. These two behaviors together increase the risk of cancer progression and poor survival. Our Iris Mental Health team is here to help if you’d like to quit smoking or drinking.   

Things You May Be Wondering

  • If I don’t drink anything during the week, can I have two drinks per day on the weekend? 

  • Is wine better than beer or hard liquor— since it’s good for the heart? 

The Bottom Line 

When it comes to alcoholic beverages and cancer, drinking the least amount possible is best. This doesn’t mean you can never have a drink, but the evidence suggests alcohol is best used infrequently, such as only on special occasions.

The evidence doesn’t support “saving up.” Skipping a drink during the weekdays in hopes of using a quota on the weekend (or special event) isn’t a good strategy for minimizing cancer risk.  

Red wine does have antioxidants and phytonutrients because it’s made from grapes, but ask your oncologist and care team if any potential heart-health benefits outweigh the risks of regular alcohol consumption in terms of cancer.  

Action Steps to Take

If alcohol is something that feels challenging to you, our Iris Care Team is here to help.