In fact, alcohol use contributes to roughly 4% of cancer cases worldwide, according to a population-based study published in 2020.
Yet evidence linking alcohol consumption to ovarian cancer, or tumors that develop in one or both of your ovaries, remains inconsistent. Most
That said, if you already have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer, heavy alcohol use may increase your chances of developing this type of cancer. In other words, alcohol consumption could possibly act as the proverbial feather that tips the scales.
Read on to learn more about the link between alcohol consumption and ovarian cancer, plus get the details on other potential risk factors.
Some studies have found a limited relationship between alcohol use and ovarian cancer.
For example, a
But wine consumption did increase cancer risk for women taking estrogen-only HRT — a known risk factor for ovarian cancer. Those who drank at least one glass of wine per day had twice the risk of ovarian cancer as those who didn’t drink wine.
This trend remains fairly prevalent throughout research. According to a
To put it another way, the relationship between alcohol and ovarian cancer weakens once you take other variables into account. People who drink alcohol may have other risk factors for ovarian cancer, but there’s also a chance alcohol could intensify the impact of any additional risk factors.
To sum up, experts have yet to determine the exact nature of alcohol’s link to ovarian cancer, and future research may yield more insight.
Other factors can also increase your chances of developing ovarian cancer, and some of these may overlap with alcohol consumption.
Risk factors don’t mean you’ll always develop ovarian cancer, or any other health condition, but they’re always worth keeping in mind.
Ovarian cancer often runs in families. You’re more likely to develop this type of cancer if you have a relative with:
These cancers are often triggered by mutations in the same inherited genes. Most inherited ovarian cancers relate to changes in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which can drastically raise your risk.
According to the
As you age, the DNA in your cells undergoes a process called methylation, which means cells stop being able to activate certain genes. Deactivation of the wrong genes can cause a cell to become cancerous. This is why your risk of cancer, including ovarian cancer, rises with increasing age.
When does ovarian cancer develop?
It’s possible that part of the connection between alcohol and ovarian cancer relates to patterns of alcohol use in older adulthood.
According to the
Evidence suggests estrogen plays a major role in ovarian cancer, although the mechanisms aren’t fully clear. It seems when estrogen is out of balance with other hormones, like progesterone and androgens, it can affect the cell division process. Heightened estrogen levels may encourage mutations in ovary cells.
Estrogen-only HRT raises your body’s estrogen levels to help ease menopause symptoms like hot flashes. But people who take estrogen-only HRT for at least 5 years have a 22% higher risk of ovarian cancer than people who never take HRT.
Alcohol can also increase the estrogen circulating in your blood, which can contribute to breast cancer. Since estrogen can cause breast tumors and ovarian tumors via similar mechanisms, alcohol consumption could potentially raise your ovarian cancer risk by changing your hormone levels.
Tobacco smoke doesn’t affect your overall ovarian cancer risk very much. But 2019 research suggests it can raise your risk of mucinous ovarian cancer, the most common subtype in
If you smoke at least 20 cigarettes a day or have smoked for over 20 years, you have twice the risk of mucinous ovarian cancer as nonsmokers.
Research on head and throat cancers suggests alcohol and cigarette smoke can compound each other’s effects. People who both drink and smoke have a much higher cancer risk than those who only drink or only smoke. However, studies have yet to confirm whether this relationship also applies to ovarian cancer.
Alcohol doesn’t appear to significantly affect ovarian cancer risk. Even so, plenty of evidence does link alcohol to an increased risk of other cancers.
In general, the more alcohol you drink, the greater your cancer risk.
According to a 2020 global study of cancers related to alcohol consumption:
- 13.9% of people with alcohol-attributable cancer had fewer than 2 drinks per day.
- 39.4% of people with alcohol-attributable cancer had between 2 and 6 drinks per day.
- 46.7% of people with alcohol-attributable cancer had more than 6 drinks per day.
Even having just 1 alcoholic drink per day may increase your risk of developing certain cancers, specifically oral, esophageal, and breast cancers.
Alcohol raises the risk of some types of cancer more than others. Compared to occasional or no alcohol consumption, heavy drinking
The occasional drink most likely won’t cause ovarian cancer. Still, cutting back on drinking could help lower your chances of developing any type of cancer, so you might consider limiting your alcohol intake to no more than one drink a day.
You may want to avoid alcohol if you’re receiving treatment for cancer, since alcohol can interfere with your medical care by:
- suppressing your immune system
- increasing your risk of complications after surgery
- overtaxing your liver, which processes both alcohol and chemotherapy drugs
- worsening chemotherapy side effects like nausea and mouth sores
Your healthcare team can offer more guidance and recommendations for alcohol consumption during cancer treatment.
Ovarian cancer can prove more challenging to detect than other gynecological cancers, since the early signs can resemble symptoms of other, more common conditions.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer might include:
- pain in your pelvis or belly
- difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- frequent or urgent urination
Usually, these issues don’t pose a cause for concern, but it’s worth getting them checked out if they seem to become more frequent and severe.
If you’ve had these symptoms almost every day for 2 weeks or longer, you may want to make an appointment with a gynecologist. Even if you don’t have ovarian cancer, you may have another health issue that requires treatment.
Most gynecological cancers are detected using pelvic exams and Pap smears. But these tests typically can’t detect ovarian tumors, unless the cancer has reached an advanced stage. Instead, doctors often
A CA-125 blood test measures the level of CA-125 protein in your blood. High CA-125 levels could suggest ovarian cancer, but only half of early-stage ovarian cancer cases involve higher levels of CA-125. Still, this test can offer a starting place to determine the cause of your symptoms.
A transvaginal ultrasound uses sound waves to screen for lumps in your ovaries. However, it can’t tell if those masses are malignant — some masses may simply be benign cysts that will eventually go away without treatment.
Depending on your test results, your care team may recommend a biopsy — the only definitive way to diagnose ovarian cancer.
Existing evidence suggests alcohol consumption alone probably won’t raise your risk of ovarian cancer.
Yet alcohol may reinforce the effects of other risk factors, including estrogen-only HRT or cigarette smoke. If you have a higher chance of developing ovarian cancer due to other factors, limiting your alcohol intake could help reduce that risk.
Cutting back on drinking may not always feel easy, but you’re not alone. Ready to give it a try? Our guide can help.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.