Breast cancer as a young woman and mother.

Breast cancer and alcohol consumption.

As a survivor of triple negative breast cancer, I am always seeking ways to reduce my chances of recurrence. And as someone that enjoys a glass of wine (OK a few) at the weekend, I was curious as to how consumption of alcohol fits into that. Is there a link between breast cancer and alcohol consumption? Is it a potential causal factor for breast cancer? Does it increase the risk of recurrence? And if so, what are the actual science backed statistics and recommendations? Let’s take a look.

Is there a link between breast cancer and alcohol consumption?

The thing that hit me in the face immediately upon researching this topic is that unfortunately yes, there IS a very important link between breast cancer and alcohol consumption. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified alcohol as one of the major modifiable risk factors for breast cancer. 

They even went as far as to say that there is NO safe level of alcohol. “Simply put, alcohol is toxic. It harms every organ while it passes through the body,” says Dr Carina Ferreira-Borges, Acting Director for Noncommunicable Diseases and Programme Manager for Alcohol and Illicit Drugs at WHO/Europe. 

*Nervously eyes the half empty bottle of wine in my fridge.*

The statistics. 

The exact statistics from the studies out there vary slightly, but all point in the same direction. Compared to women that don’t drink at all, women that have just 3 alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of developing breast cancer. Experts believe that increases by a further 10% for each additional drink a woman consumes per day! Another study showed that “moderate alcohol consumption,” which they define as 1-2 drinks per day, can lead to an estimated 30-50% increase in risk for developing the disease. 

Now, if your risk of getting breast cancer is very low to begin with, that will not necessarily amount to a large percentage. These numbers can be easily misunderstood, so let me explain.

Drinking alcohol won’t give you a 30-50% chance of getting breast cancer. What they are saying is that regular consumption can increase your personal risk by 30-50%. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing what our own individual risk is to begin with, before the disease has hit. And for someone that has a family history, carries a gene mutation, or like me has already had breast cancer , those numbers are SIGNIFICANT. 

How does alcohol consumption affect breast cancer risk?

It disrupts the pathways that lead to normal breast cell formation.

Alcohol is usually metabolized in the liver. However, the receptors involved can also be found in breast tissue. The metabolite in alcohol thought to be most significant in causing breast cancer, Acetaldehyde (AA,) can therefore bind to proteins within breast tissue, causing interference in DNA synthesis and repair. The resulting DNA abnormalities can lead to the formation of cancer cells. 

It increases oestrogen levels.

Another way in which alcohol contributes to breast cancer risk, is that it changes how Oestrogen and other hormones are metabolized within the body. Women who drink alcohol generally have a higher blood levels of Oestrogen than those who abstain. Higher levels of Oestrogen of course play a significant role in hormone positive breast cancers. 

It negatively affects weight and lifestyle. 

It’s no secret that alcohol is not a valuable part of a healthy lifestyle. Among the many detrimental affects of alcohol, it contains empty calories and generally a lot of sugar. This means it can contribute to weight gain and even diabetes. As I explain in my article “sugar and breast cancer” obesity and diabetes contribute to breast cancer risk in some fundamental ways. 

How about alcohol and the risk of breast cancer recurrence?

There are fewer studies on the effect of drinking alcohol on the risk of recurrence after a breast cancer diagnosis than there are on developing the disease in the first place. The ones that are out there have mixed results, but generally show higher incidences of recurrence and disease related death in women that drink. This is especially so in post menopausal women and those that are overweight. 

What are the official recommendations?

Interestingly, some studies have shone a light on the potential benefits of light alcohol consumption on cardiovascular health. This somewhat muddies the waters a little with regards to official recommendations. But when we are strictly talking about cancer, both risk of developing it and risk of recurrence, the evidence is clear.

Heavy and even moderate drinking significantly increases your chances of developing and ultimately dying from breast cancer. Light drinking (1 drink per day) has a lower risk associated with it than moderate to heavy drinking, but completely abstaining lowers your risk even further. It is recommended to;

  • Ideally completely eliminate alcohol from your diet. 
  • If you still want to drink, limit yourself to 4 or less drinks per week.
  • Avoid binge drinking. Drink water or mocktails between alcoholic drinks.
  • Have at least a few days per week of not drinking at all.

The take away.

Going into this article I was obviously not expecting that the research would tell me to go pour myself a gin and tonic! But the statistics I’ve uncovered have shocked and scared me. Although not a heavy drinker by any stretch, I do recognise that as a survivor I should probably limit my alcohol intake even further to help keep the beast at bay. 

Will I give it up completely? In all honesty probably not. I have weighed up the risk factor of drinking alcohol alongside my other risk factors, and I urge you to do the same. I am a healthy weight, exercise daily and eat a nutritionally well balanced diet. So I will still have a glass or 2 of wine with my husband at the weekend, but keep it at that.

And trust me, I’ll be among the first to pop a cork when a cure is found!!! 

I hope you found this article interesting and informative. If so, head over to my blog page for more. 

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