Approximately 4% of cancers worldwide are caused by alcohol consumption. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of several cancer types, including cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract, liver, colorectum, and breast. In this review, we summarise the epidemiological evidence on alcohol and cancer risk and the mechanistic evidence of alcohol-mediated carcinogenesis. There are several mechanistic pathways by which the consumption of alcohol, as ethanol, is known to cause cancer, though some are still not fully understood. Ethanol’s metabolite acetaldehyde can cause DNA damage and block DNA synthesis and repair, whilst both ethanol and acetaldehyde can disrupt DNA methylation. Ethanol can also induce inflammation and oxidative stress leading to lipid peroxidation and further DNA damage. One-carbon metabolism and folate levels are also impaired by ethanol. Other known mechanisms are discussed. Further understanding of the carcinogenic properties of alcohol and its metabolites will inform future research, but there is already a need for comprehensive alcohol control and cancer prevention strategies to reduce the burden of cancer attributable to alcohol.
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