Alcohol and Liver Cancer

While drinking alcohol does not always cause liver cancer, there is a correlation between alcohol consumption and liver cancer. Here’s what you should know.
Evidence Based
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Can Alcohol Cause Liver Cancer?

Cancer that starts in the liver is called liver cancer (or Hepatocellular carcinoma), and alcohol consumption can increase one’s risk of developing this life-threatening disease.

While alcohol consumption does not necessarily directly cause liver cancer, drinking alcohol can cause long-term liver damage and scarring (known as liver cirrhosis), ultimately leading to liver cancer. It takes time to cause long-term liver damage and scarring of liver tissue with heavy alcohol use. And that damage can actually cause changes in the DNA of the liver cells, which is what can eventually lead to cancer.

While moderate alcohol intake can cause liver damage, as well, heaving drinking and alcohol abuse significantly increase one’s risk of developing liver cancer. Several other conditions also put people at a higher risk of developing liver cancer, such as the viruses hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Health authorities recommend that, to practice liver cancer prevention, people who choose to drink alcoholic beverages should limit their intake. Men shouldn’t consume more than two drinks per day, while women shouldn’t consume more than a single drink per day.

How Does Alcohol Increase Cancer Risk?

Your body breaks down alcohol into a chemical called acetaldehyde, which damages your DNA and then stops your body from repairing that damage. This damage can stunt cells’ normal growth and inhibit their normal function. When cells grow out of control, they can create cancer tumors. 

Therefore, the less alcohol you consume, the lower your risk of developing cancer — and not just liver cancer. Alcohol can increase one’s risk of developing several types of cancer, such as the following:

  • Mouth and throat cancer
  • Voicebox (larynx) cancer
  • Esophagus cancer
  • Colon and rectum cancer
  • Breast (in women) cancer

Symptoms of Liver Cancer 

Liver cancer symptoms will vary across cancer patients, but some of the most common liver cancer symptoms include the following:

  • Liver pain after drinking
  • Nausea or vomiting with or without drinking
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling full after small meals
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Unusual tiredness
  • An enlarged liver on the right side
  • An enlarged spleen on the left side
  • Swelling or fluid build-up in the abdomen
  • Itching
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

Other Alcohol-Related Liver Conditions

Alcohol can cause other damage to your liver, beyond increasing your risk of developing cancer. Other alcohol-related liver conditions include the following:

  • Alcoholic Liver Disease
  • Alcoholic Hepatitis
  • Fatty Liver Disease
  • Bile Duct Cancer
  • Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis
  • Liver Failure

Alcohol and Liver Cancer Statistics 

Liver cancer is on the rise. Here are some statistics about alcohol and liver cancer of which you should be aware:

  • More than 800,000 people around the world are diagnosed with liver cancer every year.
  • Liver cancer affects about 33,000 people each year in the United States alone, claiming the lives of about 27,000.
  • Drinking alcohol increases your risk of developing liver cancer two-fold.
  • The use of alcohol accounts for about six percent of all cancers.
  • Alcohol use accounts for about four percent of all cancer deaths across the country.

Alcohol and Liver Cancer FAQs

Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about the association between alcohol and liver cancer.

Can I drink alcohol with liver cancer?

No matter the amount of alcohol, it’s best to avoid drinking alcohol with liver cancer. While there’s a gamut of cancer research surrounding the link between heavy drinking and the risk of developing certain diseases, studies about alcohol use during cancer treatment or after cancer are largely inconclusive. 

Alcohol use may raise the risk of recurring cancer or developing other types of cancer. Likewise, alcohol can also make some symptoms of certain cancers worse. For example, alcohol can cause nausea and vomiting, symptoms of liver cancer.

Patients should check with their healthcare partners about the safety of drinking alcohol in their given circumstances.

How many people get liver cancer from heavy alcohol use?

Several risk factors can increase one’s chances of developing liver cancer, which makes it hard to pinpoint exactly how many people get liver cancer from consuming alcoholic drinks in particular. That said, heavy alcohol use is linked to doubled risk of liver cancer. The more one drinks, the bigger their risk of developing liver cancer, which puts heavy drinkers in danger.

What is the survival rate of liver cancer with cancer treatment?

About 26 percent of those diagnosed with liver cancer survive five or more years if the cancer did not spread beyond their livers. About 10 percent were alive after five years of their diagnosis if the cancer did spread to tissue or lymph nodes around the liver, and about four percent were alive five years after if it’d spread to other parts of the body.

Cancer treatment can increase the survival rate, however. The five-year survival rate for people who are diagnosed with early-stage liver cancers and have a liver transplant is about 60 to 70 percent. 


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Resources

“Alcohol and Cancer Risk Fact Sheet.” National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/alcohol/alcohol-fact-sheet

“Alcohol and Cancer.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 July 2019, www.cdc.gov/cancer/alcohol/index.htm

“Alcohol Use and Cancer.” American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/diet-physical-activity/alcohol-use-and-cancer.html

Andrea Peirce Wednesday, December 23. “Should a Person with Liver Cancer Stop Drinking Alcohol?” Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, 23 Dec. 2015, www.mskcc.org/news/should-person-liver-cancer-stop-drinking-alcohol

“Liver Cancer - Hepatocellular Carcinoma: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000280.htm.

“Liver Cancer.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 July 2019, www.cdc.gov/cancer/liver/index.htm

“Preventing Liver Cancer.” Patient Care at NYU Langone Health, nyulangone.org/conditions/liver-cancer-liver-metastases/prevention.

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Updated on: September 8, 2020
Author
AnnaMarie Houlis
About
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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