Alcohol and bowel cancer

Bowel cancer (also known as colorectal cancer) is one of the most common types of cancer in the UK, and is diagnosed roughly 40,000 times per year (1). As with most forms of cancer no one knows exactly what causes it, but a clear link has been established between drinking to excess and occurrence of this life threatening disease.

Spotting the symptoms early can mean a full recovery, and reducing your alcohol intake is just one of the ways you can mitigate the risk of bowel cancer.

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is the common term for cancer which starts in the colon or rectum. This type of cancer is more common in older people (about nine out of ten people with bowel cancer are over 60 (2). However, it’s important to be aware that it can occur at any age and is in fact second only to lung cancer in causing cancer-related deaths in the UK. 

Symptoms of bowel cancer

Identifying bowel cancer warning signs early can go a long way to ensuring successful treatment. Common things to look out for include:

  • Any change in bowel habit – If you need to go to the toilet more frequently, or your faeces is looser, this could be a sign of bowel cancer
  • Blood in stool – Coupled with the above this is one of the most common signs of bowel cancer. You should see your GP immediately if this occurs
  • Abdominal pain – Are you experiencing persistent tummy pain or discomfort, especially after eating? It’s best to get this looked at as soon as you can
  • Anaemia – This can cause fatigue and paleness of skin due to a lack of red blood cells and can result from rectal bleeding which is otherwise unnoticeable

It is important to remember that though these symptoms could all point to a possible case of bowel cancer, they also can also result from many non-life-threatening illnesses, such as haemorrhoids (piles) or food poisoning.

If you notice any of the above symptoms, don’t panic, but make an appointment to see your GP straight away. More than 90% of people recover from bowel cancer if it’s caught early enough (3).

The link between alcohol and bowel cancer

The carcinogenic properties of alcohol are scientific fact, and excessive consumption can be strongly linked to at least seven types of cancer. On bowel cancer specifically there have been several studies into the links between above-average alcohol consumption and the risk of developing this.

One of the most significant of these was the 2007 EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) which established a clear link between excessive alcohol intake and bowel cancer. The study found that lifetime alcohol intake was associated with bowel cancer incidence, and lead to a 23% increase in risk (4).

Further evidence for the link between alcohol and bowel cancer is provided in a 2015 paper from the Department of Colorectal Surgery at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. This particular study focused on the consumption of beer, and found that regular beer drinkers had a 20% increased risk of bowel cancer when compared with non-drinkers or occasional drinkers (5). Furthermore, the study concluded that drinking just one more beer a day was associated with an increased likelihood of colorectal cancer (6).

However, both studies indicated that light or moderate drinking, for example regularly drinking within the recommended lower risk guidelines, was not related to increased risk. Also the reported fact that there was a slightly higher risk for men than for women, could be related to the ways in which the two genders metabolise alcohol differently.

Finally a further link was made when the International Agency for Research on Cancer conducted a study which found that an excess of one drink a day was related to increased bowel cancer risk (7).

Reducing the risk of bowel cancer

The thought that as little as one drink a day can potentially increase your risk of bowel cancer is a sobering one, but luckily changing the way you drink can help to reduce that risk. If you’re often tempted by the idea of a drink at the end of a long day, why not try some of our tips for cutting down at home? Follow our practical steps to take action, and have a think about whether you’re ready to cut down.

However, just as alcohol is not the sole cause of bowel cancer, simply reducing alcohol intake is not enough to mitigate the risk. Professor Robert Steele, a bowel cancer expert, recommends a diet high in fibre and low in red meat. This, along with regular exercise, should help to maintain a healthy weight, which is key to protecting your body from the risk of bowel cancer.

In addition, if you smoke try to give up, not only is smoking linked to bowel cancer, it can also cause lung cancer, mouth cancer and many other life-threatening illnesses. Finally, don’t forget to take the opportunity to be screened for bowel cancer, either by completing the stool test that is sent by post or by attending for a telescope test when it is offered.

Roughly 10% of bowel cancer cases are genetic, so if you have a history of bowel cancer in the family it’s very important to be screened regularly, especially if you are over 60 years old.

Ultimately, making healthier lifestyle choices is the best way to protect your body and reduce the risk of bowel cancer. If you need a way to keep track of your drinking and ensure you stay motivated, why not try our desktop MyDrinkaware tool or the mobile phone Track and Calculate Units app? Drinking less, eating better and exercising more are all excellent ways to keep you and your family as healthy as possible.

Bowel cancer facts

  • In the UK, roughly one in 20 people will develop bowel cancer in their lifetime (8).
  • 54% of bowel cancer cases each year in the UK are linked to major lifestyle and other risk factors

Bowel cancer screening

Bowel cancer screening is a way of detecting bowel cancer at an earlier stage which can massively increase the chances of survival. Screening is important because it can detect cancer before it causes any obvious symptoms.

FOB (faecal occult blood) test: is offered to all men and women aged 60-74. A free home test kit is sent through the post every two years. This should be returned to the NHS who then test for traces of blood in the sample.

Bowel scope screening: an additional one-off test is being offered to men and women from the age of 55. A camera and light on a flexible tube is used to detect small growths called polyps that can turn into cancer.

You can visit the NHS website to find out more about bowel cancer screening


Page updated: April 2015