Breast Cancer and Alcohol: Your Choice

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Scientists have shown a link between alcohol and breast cancer, but it was thought the amount you’d have to drink to increase your cancer risk was considerable. Now, new studies show that as few as three drinks a week may increase risk. So, what happens to that daily glass of red wine for heart health…? Making choices around risk and benefit.

    By now, you’ve probably seen the headlines: “Drinking linked to breast cancer risk.” The national media has been all over this subject in the past week, as a new study reinforces what those of us with breast cancer already know: alcohol increases your risk of breast cancer.

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    So what’s new?

    Just this: the newest data seems to show that breast cancer risk increases even if you consume as few as three drinks a week. That would be one 12-ounce bottle of beer; a 4-ounce glass of wine, and a shot (1 ounce) of hard liquor – spaced over the course of 7 days.

    Does it make you think twice about that daily “time to relax” glass of wine? Or are you mentally writing this off as yet another in the long series of “don’ts” associated with breast cancer?

    Don’t eat grilled meat. Don’t use antiperspirants. Don’t drink soy milk. Don’t… do all kinds of things you do anyway, right?

    But before you dismiss the research that vaulted the alcohol/breast cancer link into the headlines again, understand this: the two studies showing this link are a couple of the largest, longest-running studies ever undertaken focusing on factors affecting women’s health.

    So don’t take these results lightly.

    Great Britain’s Million Women Study involves, as the name suggests, more than 1 million British women aged 50 and over. Spearheaded by Oxford University researchers, it’s been following this group of women since 1996, and continues to recruit study participants.

    As does the Nurses’ Health Study, a Harvard-based study of over 100,000 female American nurses now entering its 36th year.

    While neither of these studies started out focusing specifically on the breast cancer/alcohol link, each independently has recently reported that link. Only long-term, large studies such as these can compile enough data, over enough time, to truly be taken seriously.

    At this point, though, the alcohol/breast cancer relationship is by association: no cause and effect has been established. In other words, there’s no evidence that light drinking causes breast cancer. As America’s breast cancer guru, Dr. Susan Love, pointed out in comments she made about the studies, there could be other lifestyle factors involved.

    Still, there’s a definite association between an increased risk of breast cancer, and drinking as few as three drinks a week. Just as, decades ago, researchers initially noticed an association between tobacco use and lung cancer, even though there was no evidence – at the time – that smoking caused lung cancer.

    Subsequent research has proved that yes, smoking does cause lung cancer. Will more data, collected over the next decade, establish the fact that yes, drinking as few as three drinks a week can cause breast cancer? 

  • We don’t know. As with any medical research, believing “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” will make you right only some of the time.

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    So, before you decide to forego that daily glass of wine, or several beers on the weekend, let’s look at what “increased risk” actually means here.

    Picture 1,000 women in their 50s who don’t drink at all - they’re teetotalers. And 1,000 women, same age group, who enjoy three drinks a week.

    In the first group, statistics predict that about 24 of those 1,000 women will get breast cancer. Based on the data released last week, 28 women in the group of light drinkers will be diagnosed with breast cancer – four more than average.

    Yes, there’s an increase; but it’s small. And breast cancer risk is fairly low to begin with: 2.38%, for women in their 50s with no other known risk factors.

    Plus, these are averages; the studies note that those most at risk are women who’ve been drinking steadily their whole lives. Your risk is lower if you pretty much cut out drinking after your teen years, or don’t start until later in life.

    So where does all of this leave us with red wine, which has been shown to reduce your risk of heart problems by increasing good cholesterol, reducing blood clots, and keeping coronary arteries clear?

    If you enjoy a glass of red wine now and then – or even daily – consider your risk of breast cancer, vs. your risk of cardiac issues.

    Do you have a family history of either? If so, take it into account; if you carry the BRCA I or II gene, for instance, then clearly you’re more concerned with breast health than heart health.

    If you have no family history or genetic abnormalities, does your lifestyle put you more at risk for breast cancer, or for heart issues? 

    Are you a heavy smoker, for instance? If so, your risk of heart problems may be significantly greater than your risk for breast cancer; and you might want to go ahead and have that daily glass of wine.

    Are you significantly overweight? If the answer is yes, then you’re at increased risk for both breast cancer, and heart problems. Cutting back your alcohol intake would help lower breast cancer risk, AND any subsequent weight loss would be good for both breast and heart health.

    On the other hand, if you’re in good health, with no known risk for either breast cancer or heart problems, don’t feel guilty for enjoying the occasional glass of wine, bottle of beer, or a margarita. Simple pleasures are one of the keys to a happy life. And if, at the end of a long and stressful day, 4 ounces of wine makes you smile – salud!



Published On: November 07, 2011