Drinking and Breast Cancer: The Straight Story

Patient Expert
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Did you know there’s a link between breast cancer and alcohol consumption?

If you’re an older woman, your primary care physician (PCP) has probably shared this information while going over lifestyle behaviors associated with breast cancer. Or if you’re younger, and enjoy a regular after-work drink with girlfriends, one of them might have mentioned she heard that too much drinking can give you breast cancer.

Researchers have been examining the link between breast cancer and alcohol consumption since at least 1994. And according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), study results across the board point to the same thing: drinking alcohol increases breast cancer risk, especially the risk of hormone-dependent breast cancer — the most common type.

But what does this mean, in everyday terms? Should you feel guilty every time you sip a glass of red wine? Go out with pals and order ginger ale instead of a gin and tonic? How much does drinking alcohol actually increase your cancer risk?

As little as one drink a day raises breast cancer risk

The relationship between breast cancer risk and alcohol consumption is “dose dependent” — which means the more you drink, the higher your risk. According to studies cited by the NCI, each 10g of pure alcohol consumed per day raises overall breast cancer risk by seven percent.

Let’s break that down. One drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, or 5 ounces of wine, or a shot of hard liquor. Each of these contains about 14g of pure alcohol. So a woman having a glass of wine with dinner each night raises her breast cancer risk by just under 10 percent. Add a beer at lunch or a nightcap (two drinks/day), and her risk is raised by just under 20 percent.

But risk remains relatively low

Sounds scary, doesn’t it? But remember, the lifetime breast cancer risk for American women overall is quite low: 12.3 percent, according to the NCI. Increase that risk by 20 percent by enjoying two drinks a day, and you’re still under 15 percent lifetime risk: which means for every 100 healthy women in the United States, 85 will have two drinks a day, every day, and never be diagnosed with breast cancer.

This is a simplification, of course. Not all women are at the same cancer risk to begin with, due to genetics, lifestyle choices, a previous breast cancer diagnosis, or other health issues. But broadly speaking, drinking alcohol has a far greater negative impact on your heart and liver than it does on your breasts.

What about heavy drinking?

Women downing more than 30 drinks per week see their breast cancer risk increase by 50 percent: from 12.3 percent to 18.5 percent. Again, though, heavy drinking takes its toll on your health in other serious ways beyond cancer. If your lifestyle includes multiple alcoholic drinks a day, you’re likely feeling negative effects now, and will almost certainly experience related health issues later.

Good news for survivors: Alcohol doesn’t increase breast cancer mortality

Have you been diagnosed with breast cancer, and quit drinking, and really miss your wine with dinner? Take heart: a study released last year finds no relationship between drinking and breast cancer mortality. While drinking alcohol increases your risk of recurrence, and the risk of a new cancer in the other breast, you’re no more likely to die of breast cancer than survivors who abstain.

See more helpful articles:

The Alcohol/Breast Cancer Link: Real and Dangerous

New Study: Alcohol Increases Risk of Breast Cancer Death

Risks and Benefits: Understanding the Statistics That Affect You

Top 10 Breast Cancer Risk Factors