June 9, 2021

The link between alcohol and bowel cancer

Blood sample tubes

June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month – a time to raise awareness of Australia’s second deadliest cancer.1

Each week in Australia, around 103 people die from bowel (colon or colorectal) cancer, and just under 300 people are diagnosed with it.2

While the exact cause of bowel cancer isn’t known, there are several key factors that can increase your risk, including alcohol.3

The link between alcohol and bowel cancer

Alcohol has been linked to several types of cancer, including bowel, breast, liver, pancreatic, throat and mouth cancer.3

According to the Cancer Council, alcohol consumption is linked to more than 5000 cases of cancer in Australia each year.5

Several studies have shown the risk of developing colon cancer increases with each glass of alcohol consumed. Even one drink per day (10 grams of alcohol) can increase your risk.7

Different alcoholic beverages were also tested and showed similar results. People who moderately drank beer (two glasses per day)8 or wine (1.5 glasses per day)9 increased their risk of bowel cancer compared with occasional or non-drinkers.

What is bowel cancer and what are the symptoms?

Bowel cancer occurs when cells in the lining of the small or large intestine (colon) or rectum grow too quickly.11 These cells may be harmless but can become cancerous over time.

The exact cause of bowel cancer is not known. It’s more common in people over 50 but can occur at any age.12

Bowel cancer is treatable if found early. Symptoms may include:

  • change in bowel movements such as diarrhea, constipation or irregular movements
  • blood in the stool or rectal bleeding
  • bloating, cramps or frequent and painful gas
  • unexplained anemia, fatigue or weight loss
  • abdominal pain, swelling or a lump in the abdomen
  • rectal or anal pain, or a lump in the rectum or anus.12

Although these symptoms can result from many non-life-threatening illnesses, it’s better to contact your GP or a medical professional if you notice any of these symptoms.2

Prevention is better than a cure

One of the key bowel cancer prevention efforts run by the Australian Government is the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. A simple home test kit is sent in the mail every two years to anyone aged 50 to 74 years. The test kit is a screening tool for detecting the early signs of bowel cancer.

While bowel cancer can be treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, prevention is better than a cure.

Reducing your alcohol intake is one of the best ways of reducing your risk of bowel cancer.

How can I reduce my risk of bowel cancer?

While there are some genetic factors linked to bowel cancer, adopting a healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk,16 including:

If you do choose to consume alcohol, you should drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day to reduce the risk of developing alcohol-related diseases, such as bowel cancer.21

Want to know more?

To reduce the risk of bowel and other cancers, it’s better to avoid alcohol. If you’re considering reducing your alcohol intake, contact your doctor. You can also call DrugInfo for information on the support services available on 1300 85 85 84 or email druginfo@adf.org.au.

To find out more about bowel cancer, visit the Cancer Council website.

  1. Cancer Council. Bowel cancer Australia: Cancer Council; 2019 [cited 2020 January 14].
  2. Bowel Cancer Australia.Bowel Cancer Facts 2020 [26.05.2021].
  3. Amin G, Siegel M, Naimi T.  Addiction. 2018;113(10):1802-8.
  4. Australian Government. Bowel cancer (Colorectal cancer) in Australia statistics 202 [25.05.2021].
  5. Cancer Council. Alcohol and cancer, National Position Statement 
  6. Pandeya N, Wilson LF, Webb PM, Neale RE, Bain CJ, Whiteman DC. Cancers in Australia in 2010 attributable to the consumption of alcohol. Australian and New Zealand journal of public health. 2015;39(5):408-13.
  7. Fedirko V, Tramacere I, Bagnardi V, Rota M, Scotti L, Islami F, et al. Alcohol drinking and colorectal cancer risk: an overall and dose–response meta-analysis of published studies. Annals of Oncology. 2011;22(9):1958-72.
  8. Zhang C, Zhong M. Consumption of beer and colorectal cancer incidence: a meta-analysis of observational studies. Cancer Causes Control. 2015;26(4):549-60.
  9. Ferrari P, Jenab M, Norat T, Moskal A, Slimani N, Olsen A, et al. Lifetime and baseline alcohol intake and risk of colon and rectal cancers in the European prospective investigation into cancer and nutrition (EPIC). Int J Cancer. 2007;121(9):2065-72.
  10. World Health Organization. Global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. Italy; 2010.
  11. Cancer Council Victoria. Bowel Cancer Victoria: Cancer Council Victoria; 2020
  12. Bowel Cancer Australia. What is Bowel Cancer? Sydney: Bowel Cancer Australia; 2017 [cited 2020 January 14].
  13. Roswall N, Weiderpass E. Alcohol as a risk factor for cancer: existing evidence in a global perspective. Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health. 2015;48(1):1.
  14. Scoccianti C, Lauby-Secretan B, Bello P-Y, Chajes V, Romieu I. Female Breast Cancer and Alcohol Consumption: A Review of the Literature. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2014;46(3, Supplement 1):S16-S25.
  15. University of Rochester Medical Centre.How genes cause cancer New York: University of Rochester;  [cited 2020 January 21].
  16. Cho YA, Lee J, Oh JH, Chang HJ, Sohn DK, Shin A, et al. Genetic Risk Score, Combined Lifestyle Factors and Risk of Colorectal Cancer. Cancer Res Treat. 2019;51(3):1033-40.
  17. World Cancer Research Fund, American Institute for Cancer Research. Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective. 2018.
  18. Health TDo. Iron and Health: Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. London: The Stationery Office 2010.
  19. Brown W, Bauman A, Burton N. Development of Evidence-based Physical Activity Recommendations for Adults (18-64 years). Australia; 2012.

20. Hannan LM, Jacobs EJ, Thun MJ. The association between cigarette smoking and risk of colorectal cancer in a large prospective cohort from the United States. Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Biomarkers. 2009;18(12):3362-7.

21. Australian Research Council and Universities Australia. Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. National Health and Medical Research Council. Canberra Commonwealth of Australia; 2020.

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