The health risks associated with alcohol use are well known. A drink once in a while is fine, but excessive drinking can lead to serious health problems. Most people associate drinking with the liver — the organ that filters the blood coming from our digestive tract — but does that mean that drinking alcohol causes liver cancer?
"There is clearly a link, but alcohol itself does not cause cancer in the liver,” says Roderich Schwarz, MD, PhD, Co-Director of Roswell Park’s Liver and Pancreas Tumor Center. “Alcohol can cause chronic liver damage, including cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, which is one of the conditions that can increase the risk or likelihood of liver cancer."
Cirrhosis occurs when the liver cells become damaged and are replaced with scar tissue. It is the leading cause of liver cancer in the United States. However, cirrhosis can be caused by factors other than alcohol use, including chronic hepatitis B or C infections and NASH (Non-Alcoholic Steato-Hepatitis), a fatty liver disease. This is also known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
"In the United States, a relatively small percentage of cirrhosis — around 20% — is caused by alcohol alone, while some other patients contract cirrhosis from viral hepatitis and drinking alcohol excessively,” says Dr. Schwarz. “In other countries, such as France, where drinking is more prevalent on a daily basis, alcohol-related cirrhosis is more common. In the United States, hepatitis C is the leading cause of cirrhosis.”
While there is a risk that alcohol abuse could eventually lead to liver cancer, it's more likely that excessive drinking will lead to liver damage, and eventually, liver failure. "There is a concern with alcohol and liver cancer, but the even greater concern should be about alcohol causing chronic liver damage,” Schwarz explains. “When you look at the general population, people with liver damage are dying of liver failure at a much higher rate than liver cancer. So the cancer risk does go up with excessive drinking, but we don't say, ''Excessive drinking is bad because of your risk of liver cancer.' We say, 'Excessive drinking is bad for your liver.' Period."
To limit your risk of developing liver cirrhosis and liver cancer, as well as several other alcohol-related health issues, the CDC recommends that you drink in moderation, defined as having up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. One drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content), 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content) or 1.5 ounces or a "shot" of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (for example, gin, rum, vodka or whiskey). The guidelines refer to a single day and should not be averaged out over several days.