The Alcohol/Breast Cancer Link: Real and Dangerous
A 12-ounce bottle of beer. A shot of 80-proof liquor. A 5-ounce glass of wine.
Which of these raises your risk of breast cancer?
The answer? They all do.
Alcohol increases breast cancer risk
Large-scale studies done by multiple research institutions around the world over the course of decades have all come to the same conclusion: there’s a link between breast cancer and alcohol, and it’s not good.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI), commenting on these studies, notes, “The risk of breast cancer was higher across all levels of alcohol intake.” The American Cancer Society adds, “The use of alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer.”
And the more you drink, the higher your risk: according to the NCI, for every 10g alcohol you consume daily (the equivalent of just under 1 drink), your risk rises 7 percent.
But is all drinking created equal?
No. Having a glass of red wine every night with dinner raises your risk less than downing seven shots of tequila at a Saturday-night party. How so? According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, current research shows that binge drinking is more dangerous than a single daily drink – even though the amount of alcohol consumed over the course of a week may be the same.
Dr. Philip J. Brooks, a program officer at the NIAAA, notes, “Having multiple drinks in the same sitting will result in higher blood alcohol levels than from a single drink, which can trigger a different type of alcohol metabolism leading to DNA damage. Notably, a recent epidemiologic study from Harvard found that women who reported binge-type drinking had higher breast cancer risk than those who did not.”
How does alcohol raise breast cancer risk?
In part, by increasing the amount of circulating estrogen in the blood. More estrogen = greater breast cancer risk. Which is why breastfeeding and having children earlier in life decrease breast cancer risk, since circulating estrogen is low during pregnancy and while a woman is nursing.
Still, increasing estrogen isn’t the only way alcohol raises breast cancer risk. A University of Houston study released in March notes that alcohol also triggers higher levels of a cancer-causing gene, BRAF. This gene mimics the cancer-enhancing effects of estrogen, even when no estrogen is present. Thus even women with hormone-negative breast cancer raise their risk of recurrence by consuming alcohol.
Alcohol also decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease
So is alcohol totally bad for you? No. According to the NIAAA, moderate alcohol consumption can lower your risk of death from coronary artery disease. And for women trying to lower breast cancer risk, the news is even better: resveratrol, a substance found in grape skins and thus in red wine, blocks the cancer-enhancing effects of estrogen.
So the takeaway is…
The more alcohol you consume, the more you raise your risk of breast cancer. Moderate drinking – defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as up to 1 drink daily – raises your breast cancer risk just slightly. Moderate drinking also reduces your risk of heart disease.
Does family history and your own lifestyle put you more at risk for breast cancer, or for heart disease? The answer will help you decide just how much – if any – alcohol you choose to consume.
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence has declared April Alcohol Awareness Month. What better way to mark this initiative than to make a decision around drinking that just might end up saving your life?
National Cancer Institute. "Alcohol and Cancer Risk." June 24, 2013. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/alcohol/alcohol-fact-sheet.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). "Scientists Rethink Alcohol/Breast Cancer Relationship." October 16, 2012. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/research/niaaa-research-highlights/scientists-rethink-alcoholbreast-cancer-relationship.
Plataforma SINC. "Alcohol intake increases the risk of breast cancer." ScienceDaily. October 21, 2015. accessed April 17, 2016. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/10/151021083640.htm.
Ronksley, PE. "Association of Alcohol Consumption with Selected Cardiovascular Disease Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis." Hwadmin. February 22, 2011. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.d671.
University of Houston. "Cancer-causing gene triggered by alcohol may increase breast cancer risk." ScienceDaily. March 16, 2016. Accessed April 17, 2016. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160316194655.htm.
Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.