How Drugs and Alcohol Can Increase the Risks of Cancer

How Drugs and Alcohol can increase risk of cancer

When cells begin dividing rapidly and uncontrollably, they may form tissue masses called tumors. This abnormal cell growth usually comes from genetic mutations that regulate cellular reproduction and death. Tumors can be harmless (benign) or malignant (cancerous). Who develops an increased risk of cancer depends primarily on that person’s lifestyle choices, severity of exposure to carcinogens, and family history of cancer.

Two lifestyle choices that significantly increase your risk for cancer are drug addiction and alcoholism. Although cigarette smoking isn’t thought of as a “drug” addiction, nicotine is just as addicting as a street drug. Tobacco and e-cigarette aerosols also contain known carcinogenic chemicals that promote lung disease, COPD, and cancer.

The substance use-cancer connection is real, substantiated by thousands of studies, and represents the worst health crisis in the world, second only to COVID-19. Every year, individuals of all ages with a substance use disorder succumb to cancer and cancer-related medical complications. Nearly 4% of all cancer deaths in the U.S. involving esophageal, colon, liver, and breast cancer are attributable to alcohol abuse. The rate of cancer deaths linked to drug abuse is even higher among people who use heroin, methamphetamine, or cocaine.

What Types of Cancer Commonly Affect Individuals with Substance Use Disorder?

Moderate to heavy alcohol consumption raises your risk of the following cancers:

  • Larynx
  • Throat
  • Mouth
  • Liver
  • Colon/rectum
  • Breast (women only)

Drinking more than three alcoholic (beer, wine, and hard liquor) drinks every day may also increase your risk for pancreatic, stomach, or prostate cancer. Men who abuse alcohol are up to six times more likely to develop liver cirrhosis than alcoholic women. However, women with alcohol-induced cirrhosis who are on liver transplant lists have higher mortality rates than men in the same situation. Women are also more likely to experience complications from scar tissue formation following a liver transplant than men.

Drug addiction has been associated with similar types of cancer. Women aged 60+ who use drugs have over double the breast cancer risk of those in their 40s. A male addict’s risk for colorectal and prostate cancer significantly increases with age, especially if they have a family history of prostate/colorectal cancer and are over 60.

Understanding How Drugs and Alcohol Contribute to Cancer

Alcohol’s Effects on the Body

Your body metabolizes alcohol into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde that damages and prevents repair of DNA. Destroying or mutating cellular DNA promotes uncontrollable cell growth and the potential for cancerous tumors. Acetaldehyde is also the most prevalent carcinogen in cigarette smoke.

Studies show that:

  • Consuming alcohol may further lead to chronic inflammatory conditions favorable to the spread of cancerous cells.
  • Alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to use folate and other nutrients to make and repair DNA.
  • Excessive consumption of alcoholic drinks weakens the immune system’s capacity for detecting and destroying abnormal cellular activity.
  • People who abuse alcohol are more likely to be heavy smokers, which increases their risk for cancer.

Other studies have indicated that alcohol consumption of less than or equal to one and a half drinks per day accounts for 26% to 35% of alcohol-linked cancer deaths in the U.S. Although the more you drink heightens your risk of cancer, research shows that any amount of occasional or consistent alcohol intake poses a potential risk for DNA damage and cancer.

Drug Abuse Effects on the Body

Abusing prescription and non-prescription drugs puts an enormous amount of physiological stress on the heart, lungs, and other major organs. How a drug specifically impacts your body at the cellular level depends on the type of drug being abused.


Researchers discovered over 30 years ago that cocaine causes cancer in rats. Recent studies indicate that cocaine and crack cocaine can be deemed chemical carcinogens due to their DNA toxicity and oxidative stress qualities on human cells. Another study found a positive but weak association between the risk for head and neck cancer and cocaine inhalation. Consequently, there appears to be preliminary support for labeling cocaine as a carcinogen.

The Computer Automated Structure Evaluation (CASE) does classify cocaine as a carcinogenic agent. CASE is an AI program that provides detailed reports on the activity of molecular and cellular infrastructures.


A recent study tracked over 40,000 patients who attended a long-term treatment program for heroin addiction. In 10 years of attending the program, higher than average cancer death rates were reported among the patients. While heroin has not yet been proven to be carcinogenic, researchers speculate that heroin’s detrimental effects on the immune system led to recurring, severe infections among patients. In addition, the majority of heroin addicts in treatment continued to use tobacco and alcohol frequently.

Research into the hypothesis that heroin addiction speeds up the aging process in cells found that heroin users did have lower levels of telomerase, a substance linked to aging. Some findings suggest that heroin addiction may indirectly increase the risk of cancer due to rapidly deteriorating cellular health and immune system functioning.

Treating Substance Addiction: Can the Risk of Cancer Be Reversed?

The extent of recovering from the harm caused by alcohol or drug addiction depends on several factors, such as the length and intensity of the addiction and the overall health of the individual. If someone with early signs of cirrhosis enters a treatment program for alcohol abuse, they may see a gradual reversal of liver disease. A recovering alcoholic with moderate-stage cirrhosis who remains abstinent may not experience a reversal of the disease but rather a delay in the progression of cirrhosis.

Getting professional treatment for an addiction before the addiction causes irreparable health problems is the best way to avoid living with the risk of cancer or other severe disease. Ongoing medical attention and psychological support will also be essential for maintaining health and well-being during recovery.

Women recovering from a substance use disorder should get regular mammograms and pap smears. These screening tests can detect abnormalities that may or may not indicate the presence of cancer cells in their earliest stages. For women with a family history of colon cancer, they should also be regularly screened for colorectal cancer (colonoscopy).

Reducing Cancer Risks With Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment

Education, policy, and community support are vital for preventing and treating drug and alcohol addictions and reducing cancer rates among substance abusers. Additional strategies that local communities should consider for emphasizing the importance of substance abuse awareness to decrease cancer rates include:

  • Introduce school drug education programs that teach kids and teens about the short-term and long-term dangers of substance abuse
  • Create drug awareness campaigns using social media to disseminate hard-hitting information about drug and alcohol abuse
  • Hold community events about drug abuse prevention and invite experts to talk about the physical and mental consequences of substance abuse
  • Provide information about community and online support groups and counseling services for individuals affected by drug abuse

Empowered with understanding how drugs and alcohol could increase cancer risk, you should be able to make informed choices about your long-term health. If you have concerns about substance abuse and its association with cancer, talk to an addiction professional – help and support are available.