February 3, 2020

Alcohol and bowel cancer: common companions

Blood sample tubes

Bowel (or colorectal) cancer is the second most common cancer in Australia.1 In 2015, 15,604 new cases were diagnosed.2

Alcohol causes, or increases the risk of, different cancers including breast, pancreatic, throat, mouth and bowel cancer.3 In Australia, it is estimated that 3,208 cancer diagnoses in 2010 were attributable to alcohol.4

Alcohol is one of the four most common preventable risk factors for non-communicable diseases, like cancer.5

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is the term for cancer that begins in the small or large bowel, colon or rectum.6 It begins when cells in the bowel lining grow too quickly.6 These cells can be benign but may become cancerous over time. Bowel cancer is more common in older people but can occur at any age.7 It is treatable if found early. Symptoms may include:

  • A recent, persistent change in bowel movements such as diarrhea, constipation, irregular movements, a change in shape or appearance of bowel 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 the presence of a lump in the abdomen
  • Rectal or anal pain or a lump in the rectum or anus.7

Around 80 Australians die from bowel cancer every week.8

However, bowel cancer is preventable with early detection.

One of the key interventions to prevent deaths from bowel cancer is the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, run by the Australian Government. It is a comprehensive and simple screening tool for detecting early signs of bowel cancer, and if you are aged 50 to 74 years of age, you will receive a free home test kit in the mail every two years.

Early diagnosis is key to a good outcome for people with bowel cancer.

While bowel cancer is often treatable with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, prevention is better than a cure.

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

How does alcohol cause cancer?

Alcohol is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, like asbestos or tobacco smoking.

Strong and consistent evidence tells us that alcohol in any quantity is linked to different types of cancer.9 All alcoholic beverages contain the chemical ethanol. When alcohol is consumed the body needs to meatbolise the ethanol - during this process a bi-product called acetaldehyde is created which can damage cells in the body.10 Chemicals that damage cells, or increase cell mutations, also increase the likelihood of cancer occurring.11

This means it is not only heavy or frequent drinkers that are affected – any amount of alcohol can increase the risk of cancer.

How can I reduce my risk of bowel cancer?

While there are some genetic factors that are linked to bowel cancer, dietary and lifestyle factors also contribute to the risk. In fact, studies have shown that it may be possible to reduce the risk of bowel cancer by adopting a healthier lifestyle.12

To reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer, there are several things to consider:

To reduce the risk of bowel and other cancers it is better to avoid alcohol.

If you do choose to consume alcohol, you should drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any given day to reduce the risk of developing alcohol-related diseases, such as bowel cancer.17

Want to know more?

If you are considering reducing your alcohol intake, contact your regular doctor or call DrugInfo for information on the support services available on 1300 85 85 84 or druginfo@adf.org.au

  1. Cancer Council. Bowel cancer Australia: Cancer Council; 2019 [cited 2020 January 14].
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Cancer data in Australia. Canberra: AIHW; 2019.
  3. Amin G, Siegel M, Naimi T. National Cancer Societies and their public statements on alcohol consumption and cancer risk. Addiction (Abingdon, England). 2018;113(10):1802-8.
  4. 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.
  5. World Health Organization. Global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. Italy; 2010.
  6. Cancer Council Victoria. Bowel Cancer Victoria: Cancer Council Victoria; 2020
  7. Bowel Cancer Australia. What is Bowel Cancer? Sydney: Bowel Cancer Australia; 2017 [cited 2020 January 14].
  8. 80 Australians die every week from bowel cancer - Know the symptoms [press release]. Sydney: Bowel Cancer Australia2017.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. University of Rochester Medical Centre. How genes cause cancer New York: University of Rochester; [cited 2020 January 21].
  12. 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 research and treatment : official journal of Korean Cancer Association. 2019;51(3):1033-40.
  13. World Cancer Research Fund, American Institute for Cancer Research. Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective. 2018.
  14. Health TDo. Iron and Health: Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. London: The Stationery Office 2010.
  15. Brown W, Bauman A, Burton N. Development of Evidence-based Physical Activity Recommendations for Adults (18-64 years). Australia; 2012.
  16. 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.
  17. Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. 2020.

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