Alcohol and cancer

Recent Dev Alcohol. 1998:14:67-95. doi: 10.1007/0-306-47148-5_4.


A great number of epidemiological data have identified chronic alcohol consumption as a significant risk factor for upper alimentary tract cancer, including cancer of the oropharynx, larynx, and the esophagus, and for the liver. In contrast to those organs, the risk by which alcohol consumption increases cancer in the large intestine and in the breast is much smaller. However, although the risk is lower, carcinogenesis can be enhanced with relatively low daily doses of ethanol. Considering the high prevalence of these tumors, even a small increase in cancer risk is of great importance, especially in those individuals who exhibit a higher risk for other reasons. The epidemiological data on alcohol and other organ cancers are controversial and there is at present not enough evidence for a significant association. Although the exact mechanisms by which chronic alcohol ingestion stimulates carcinogenesis are not known, experimental studies in animals support the concept that ethanol is not a carcinogen, but under certain experimental conditions is a cocarcinogen and/or (especially in the liver) a tumor promoter. The metabolism of ethanol leads to the generation of acetaldehyde and free radicals. These highly reactive compounds bind rapidly to cell constituents and possibly to DNA. Acetaldehyde decreases DNA repair mechanisms and the methylation of cytosine in DNA. It also traps glutathione, an important peptide in detoxification. Furthermore, it leads to chromosomal aberrations and seems to be associated with tissue damage and secondary compensatory hyperregeneration. More recently, the finding of considerable production of acetaldehyde by gastrointestinal bacteria was reported. Other mechanisms by which alcohol stimulates carcinogenesis include the induction of cytochrome P4502E1, associated with an enhanced activation of various procarcinogens present in alcoholic beverages, in association with tobacco smoke and in diets, a change in the metabolism and distribution of carcinogens, alterations in cell cycle behavior such as cell cycle duration leading to hyperregeneration, nutritional deficiencies such as methyl, vitamin A, folate, pyrridoxalphosphate, zinc and selenium deficiency, and alterations of the immune system, eventually resulting in an increased susceptibility to certain viral infections such as hepatitis B virus and hepatitis C virus. In addition, local mechanisms in the upper gastrointestinal tract and in the rectum may be of particular importance. Such mechanisms lead to tissue injury such as cirrhosis of the liver, a major prerequisite for hepatocellular carcinoma. Thus, all these mechanisms, functioning in concert, actively modulate carcinogenesis, leading to its stimulation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects*
  • Animals
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / etiology
  • Ethanol / adverse effects*
  • Ethanol / pharmacokinetics
  • Gastrointestinal Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Humans
  • Liver Cirrhosis, Alcoholic / etiology
  • Liver Neoplasms / etiology
  • Risk Factors


  • Ethanol