It’s common knowledge that drinking too much alcohol is bad for your health. But many women are unaware that alcohol is a serious risk factor for breast cancer.
In fact, only one in five women attending breast clinics and screening appointments and only half of the staff at a National Health Service health center in Britain knew that alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer, according to a study published in the journal BMJ Open. And that lack of awareness likely extends to the United States as well.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the U.S., other than some skin cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While many risk factors are out of our control—like your genetics—you’re not powerless over your breast cancer risk. There are risk factors you can change, and that includes your alcohol intake. Here’s what you need to know.
Alcohol and Breast Cancer: How Much Is Too Much?
Studies have shown that even just one alcoholic drink a day can up your risk of breast cancer, according to MD Anderson Cancer Center. For example, women who have three drinks a week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer than women who don’t drink at all. But does that mean you should never even have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer at happy hour?
Thankfully, you don’t have to be that strict. Limiting yourself to just one drink a day is typically fine, say experts at MD Anderson. Plus, one glass of wine actually may be good for your heart, according to some studies. It’s when you have more than one daily drink on a regular basis that the risk really increases—and it goes up the more you have.
But what even counts as one drink? Well, it depends on your alcohol of choice.
- Beer: 12 ounces
- Wine: 5 ounces
- Liquor: 1.5 ounces
There are several reasons why drinking can make you more likely to develop breast cancer, according to MD Anderson. For example, drinking can lead to unhealthy weight gain (alcohol is just empty calories, after all), which in turn ups your cancer risk. Further, it can raise levels of folic acid and certain hormones like estrogen, which can also spur tumor growth.
If you’re not planning to go 100% alcohol-free, or if sticking to one drink a day sounds tricky, at least try to choose with care, recommends MD Anderson. Stick with lower-calorie options, like a vodka seltzer with lime instead of a beer. Also try to steer clear of liquors greater than 100 proof, like Bacardi 151, Absolut 100, or Everclear—these are more alcoholic and therefore raise your risk of cancer even more.
Other Breast Cancer Risk Factors You Can Change
Beyond your drinking habits, there are many other ways you can work to reduce your breast cancer risk. Other risk factors you can influence, per the CDC, include:
- Not being physically active. Not to sound like a broken record, but yes, exercise is good for you! And women who aren’t physically active do have a higher risk of breast cancer.
- Being overweight or obese after menopause. Women who are at a normal weight have a lower risk of getting breast cancer. Here’s a helpful 12-month plan for weight loss to get you started.
- Taking hormone therapy for menopause. During menopause, many women take some form of hormone replacement therapy (HRT). It’s important to know that HRT containing estrogen and progesterone may slightly up your breast cancer risk when taken for more than five years. The longer you take it, the higher your risk. However, your risk drops to normal three years after you stop the HRT, per the American Cancer Society. Your M.D. can help you weigh the risk and benefits of taking HRT and offer alternative solutions to your menopause symptoms, too.
- Taking birth control pills. A history of taking birth control pills can also slightly up your risk of breast cancer; however, this was mostly seen in women who take a specific type of pill called a triphasic pill, in which the amount of hormones in your pills change each week of your cycle, according to the National Cancer Institute. The risk was lowest in women who were no longer taking the pills, whereas women currently on the pill had a slightly higher risk. Again, talk with your doc to weigh the pros and cons of different birth control options—there are non-hormonal ones available, like the copper IUD.
- Reproductive history. While some aspects of your reproductive health may be outside your control, it may be helpful to know that having your first pregnancy before age 30, having at least one full-term pregnancy, and breastfeeding reduce your risk of getting breast cancer.