Does eating red meat increase my risk of breast cancer? How about grilled chicken?
Does a high-fat diet increase my risk?
Is red wine good for me, or not?
There’s an awful lot of information out there linking breast cancer with (take your pick) fat, meat, barbecuing, the hormones used in raising beef and chicken, caffeine, aspartame, nitrites, irradiated foods…
But you know what? The causal relationship between breast cancer and all of the foods and substances mentioned above just isn’t there. While a lower-fat diet, one focusing on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat protein, has been proven over and over again to promote general health, there’s no solid, proven data that links any particular food or beverage you consume with an increase in breast cancer risk.
With one exception: alcohol.
You can take this to the bank: alcohol increases your risk for breast cancer: an original cancer, or a recurrence.
Period. End of story.
The National Institutes of Health Web site, my “go to” source for reliable information, notes that “Alcohol intake is the best-established specific dietary risk factor for breast cancer... Available evidence is strong that breast cancer risk can be reduced… by limiting alcohol consumption.”
The NIH goes on to say that this relationship is probably due to the fact that alcohol increases the level of circulating estrogen in the blood; and higher estrogen levels often translate to an increased risk of breast cancer.
This isn’t late-breaking news, ladies. Back in 1994, a compilation of 38 different studies showed that 1 drink per day – 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1 ½ ounces of liquor – increased breast cancer risk across the board (all types of cancer, all ages of women) by 10%.
A more recent study showed that for every 10g of alcohol consumed daily, breast cancer risk increases 9%.
To avoid doing the math, this translates as follows: women who have 1 drink or less per day increase their risk of breast cancer slightly. Women who down 2 to 5 drinks per day increase their risk of breast cancer by a whopping 41%.
So what’s the take-home here? Do we have to give up our dinner glass of Chardonnay, that cold beer on a hot day, or (heaven forbid!) the occasional poolside margarita?
Not at all. Notice the NIH advises us to “limit” alcohol consumption, not avoid it altogether. One drink a day does increase risk, but not significantly. For those of us who enjoy responsible drinking, the pleasure is worth the slightly increased risk – in my opinion.
But if you’re a woman who observes cocktail hour every evening with a couple of Cosmopolitans; who enjoys two or three cold beers after work regularly, or wine at dinner followed by a nightcap – you might want to think about cutting back.
So, that takes care of drinking. What about eating? While not strictly tied to a specific diet, there’s one other proven link between eating patterns and breast cancer risk: weight gain after the age of 18.
The more weight you gain in adulthood, the higher your risk of hormone-sensitive breast cancer after menopause.
Yes, after menopause. Pre-menopausal breast cancer hasn’t been tied to weight gain. Not that this lets you off the hook: your risk of breast cancer increases after menopause anyway, so why make it even higher by carrying extra weight in those middle-adult years?
Again, it’s all tied to your lifetime exposure to estrogen. Fat tissue increases circulating estrogen. The heavier you are, the more estrogen in your system, the greater your exposure, the higher your risk.
So, what did you weigh at age 18? Almost certainly less than you weigh today, right? If you’ve gained more than 20 pounds since those high school days, you’re increasing your risk of post-menopausal breast cancer by about 40%, compared to women whose weight has remained fairly constant. (If you’ve been heavy since childhood, your risk of breast cancer isn’t higher due to your weight.)
If you gained over 70 pounds between the ages of 18 and 35, your risk of breast cancer is 60% higher than normal. And if that weight gain came between ages 36 and 50, your risk is doubled. In addition, it’s three times as likely your cancer will become metastatic.
Interestingly, it seems the risk is exacerbated for women who gain weight around their middles, rather than in their hips and thighs; the “apples” are at greater risk than the “pears.”
So, like many American women, you’ve gained quite a lot of weight since those teenage years. And your risk of breast cancer is higher than it might be.
Sigh… what’s a woman to do?
Luckily, losing weight lowers your cancer risk; the less fat you carry, the lower your estrogen, the lower your risk of post-menopausal, hormone-dependent cancer. So eat healthy, exercise, and try to shed a few pounds.
It’s not easy. But then, neither is breast cancer.