Does Substance Abuse Increase the Risk of Getting Cancer?

Depending on which substance or substances you use and how much you use them, you may be increasing your risk of developing cancer. This page will give an overview of the substances that are known to increase your risk of cancer and how this happens. It will also offer some resources for further reading.

How Different Drugs Can Impact Your Risk of Cancer

Long-term consequences of substance misuse can include an increase in your risk of developing cancer.1 While addictive substances like alcohol and tobacco are more widely known for their cancer risk, other substances can carry a risk as well or have benefits as well as associated risks.1 A person’s risk for different types of cancer depends not only on the substances they use, but also the amount they consume, the frequency of their use, their overall health and lifestyle, and the type of cancer.

Alcohol and Cancer


Alcohol is known to contribute to several types of cancer.1 Studies show that the more alcohol a person consumes—particularly the more alcohol someone drinks regularly over time—the greater likelihood they have of developing an alcohol-associated cancer and of dying from cancer.1,2 Even those who have no more than one drink per day can modestly increase the risk for some cancers.1,2

Alcohol use increases your risk of developing:1

  • Head and neck cancer (mouth, throat, and voice box).
  • Esophageal cancer.
  • Breast cancer.
  • Liver cancer.
  • Colorectal cancer (colon and/or rectum).

Alcohol use may increase your risk of developing:2

  • Melanoma.
  • Prostate cancer.
  • Pancreatic cancer.

Opioids and Cancer

Heroin, fentanyl, painkillers, and other opioids have a complex relationship with cancer leading to contradictory conclusions that continues to be studied. Opioids are associated with both positive and negative effects. For example, at some doses, morphine can enhance tumor growth, and at others, it seems to inhibit it.1

The associated risks aren’t clear cut, and there could actually be some cancer inhibiting properties of certain opioids, though the benefits may be outweighed by side effects limiting their use as anti-cancer therapies. To further complicate things, it’s clear from the existing body of research that results on the effect of opioids on cancer development and progression are dependent on the type of cancer, the doses of opioids, route of administration or the time and method of opioid administration.3

The relationship is further complicated, however, given that opioids are often prescribed to help with pain relief for patients with advanced cancer.1 Also, injecting drugs, be it heroin, another opioid, or any drug, for that matter, substantially increases the risk of HIV.4 Although it is unlikely HIV causes cancer directly, over time it causes the immune system to become weaker, putting people living with HIV at an increased risk of many types of cancer.5 Injecting drugs can also result in chronic pulmonary complications that can increase the risk of cancer.6

Marijuana and Cancer

Heap of weed buds and joints on dark background

The evidence surrounding marijuana and cancer is mixed. Smoking marijuana has been found to deliver harmful toxins and cancer-causing chemicals also found in tobacco smoke, which can be harmful to the lungs and cardiovascular system, although more research is needed to understand its effects on cancers of the respiratory system.1 Limited evidence suggests an association between current, frequent, or chronic marijuana smoking and testicular cancer, however, it requires further research.1,7

Certain cannabinoids found in marijuana have resulted in two FDA-approved drugs that can be helpful in decreasing nausea and vomiting from cancer chemotherapy, as well as in treating pain caused by damaged nerves.7

Anabolic Steroids and Cancer

Anabolic steroids are often misused by those who desire a more muscular build or better physical performance. However, steroid misuse can have consequences throughout the body, including testicular cancer in men and the development of liver tumors.8

Resources About Cancer and Substance Use Disorders

Many organizations exist as resources for people with cancer or those who struggle with substance use disorders.

  • American Cancer Society: A national organization run by volunteers committed to eradicating cancer. They publish educational material on cancer and its causes and have connections with several support programs for those with cancer.
  • National Cancer Institute: A government-funded organization that functions as a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They publish articles explaining various cancer-related topics and act as a center for cancer research.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): SAMHSA is a government-funded organization that offers numerous resources for people with substance misuse or mental health disorders. They have a treatment finder, a national helpline, and a crisis hotline for those in need. Additionally, they publish up-to-date research on topics related to substance misuse and provide information about evidence-based treatment options.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): NIDA is dedicated to improving individual and public health by developing scientific knowledge on drug use and addiction. They have many helpful articles on the effects of using specific substances and on addiction treatment and publish the most recent findings in addiction medicine.

Help for Substance Misuse

If you or a loved one are looking for drug rehab treatment inLafayette, NJ,Sunrise House may have what you need. Sunrise House Treatment Center offers qualified staff and various levels of addiction treatment to meet you where you are. Our staff is available online or by phone to answer any questions you may have about rehab admissions. Does insurance cover rehab and are there other drug rehab payment options? Find out today by contacting Sunrise House Treatment Center. It may make the difference you need.

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