What You Need to Know About Drinking Alcohol and Breast Cancer Risk

You may have read about research suggesting a glass of red wine lowers the risk of heart disease, but hold on before you pour another glass of Merlot. Other studies have found drinking alcohol raises the risk of breast cancer (and cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, liver, colon and rectum). So, the question you’re probably asking is, “What’s a woman to do?”

Heart disease is the number one killer of women (22.4 percent of deaths). Cancer is close behind (21.5 percent). About 15 percent of those deaths are from breast cancer. Knowing both heart disease and breast cancer are significant health risks, how do you decide? Does alcohol’s heart benefit outweigh its cancer risk? The guidelines don’t say, “don’t drink,” but rather “if you do drink, drink in moderation.” It’s up to you to decide.

Here’s information to help you better understand alcohol consumption and cancer risk, and what it means to drink in moderation.

Alcohol and Cancer Connection

An important study found that alcohol consumption caused three to four percent of all cancer deaths in the U.S. In women, more than half of those deaths were from breast cancer. And the number of years of normal expected life lost for each person was 17 to 19 years.

The researchers concluded that “alcohol use should be lowered or avoided to reduce cancer risk.” You can find the American Journal of Public Health study here.

How Does Alcohol Cause Cancer?

Alcohol probably doesn’t cause cancer directly. Instead it can lead to other changes in the body. According to the American Cancer Society, these conditions can raise your cancer risk. Alcohol:

  • Damages tissue. Alcohol irritates tissues and can cause inflammation, even scaring. When cells try to repair themselves, sometimes the DNA changes. Those changes can lead to cancer.
  • Produces harmful chemicals. Bacteria in your body can change alcohol to other chemicals, like acetaldehyde (causes cancer in rats).
  • Interacts with other chemicals. Alcohol can dissolve other chemicals and make it easier for them to enter the cells. Tobacco is an example. That’s why smoking and drinking together are especially bad.
  • Prevents absorption of nutrients. It lowers the body’s ability to use folate, a vitamin. Low folate is a known risk for breast cancer (and colon cancer).
  • Raises estrogen. This hormone directly impacts development of breast tissue. Some breast cancers especially “thrive” on estrogen.
  • Adds body weight. Being overweight is also a cancer risk.

Amount You Drink Matters

There’s a clear hard line: any amount of alcohol you drink increases your risk of breast cancer – or any alcohol-related cancer. The more you drink, the greater the risk.

The softer side is any reduction you make in drinking can reduce the risk.

If you want to keep some alcohol in your life, keep it light to moderate.

What’s “Moderate” Drinking?

The usual definition is no more than one drink a day for women (up to two for men). That’s one glass of:

  • Beer (12 ounces),
  • Wine (5 ounces), or
  • Hard liquor – 80 proof (1.5 fluid ounces).

But What About Your Heart?

Experts agree that if you don’t drink you shouldn’t start just for heart benefits.

If you decide not to drink to lower your cancer risk (or for other reasons), you can still reduce heart disease risk with other lifestyle changes:

  • Exercise a little more, and a little harder
  • Eat healthier: more plant based food, more Mediterranean-type diet
  • Reduce your stress

Eating good food slowly and in the company of friends just might be as good of a stress reducer as a glass of wine. Or opt for a non-alcoholic sparkling red grape juice. Delicious and good for your heart.

Meet the Author

Julie A. Kepple, MD is a board-certified, fellowship-trained breast surgeon at Aurora Health Care in Cudahy, Milwaukee, Summit, and West Allis, Wisconsin.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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