Thanks to decades of research, today’s consumers are armed with more information than ever before on how to lead healthy lives in an effort to prevent disease. Lifestyle factors, such as diet, exercise, and smoking, are often studied for their effects on disease risk. Another lifestyle factor—alcohol consumption—can also influence disease risk. And when it comes to the risk of breast cancer, some research has shown that consuming alcohol may increase that risk.
Overall Risk Factors
Drinking alcohol is one of many risk factors for breast cancer. It’s important to note that a woman who has one or more risk factors for breast cancer will not necessarily get the disease. If she does get the disease, it doesn’t mean that those particular risk factors actually caused her cancer.
Some of the risk factors for breast cancer include the following:
- Sex: female, although men can also get breast cancer
- Age: 50 or older
- Personal history of breast cancer
- Family members with breast cancer
- Being overweight
- Changes in breast tissue, such as atypical ductal hyperplasia, radial scar formation, and lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS)
- Changes in certain genes (BRCA1, BRCA2, and others)
- Race: Caucasian
- Tobacco use
Increased exposure to estrogen over a lifetime through:
- Early onset of menstruation
- Late onset of menopause
- No childbearing or late childbearing
- Absence of breast-feeding
- Taking hormone replacement therapy for long periods of time ( Prempro for more than four years)
- Increased breast density (more lobular and ductal tissue and less fatty tissue)
- Radiation therapy before the age of 30 years old
- Alcohol use
Researchers in England evaluated data from 53 previously published studies on alcohol and breast cancer. The review included data on more than 153,000 women and found a slightly increased relative risk (7%) of breast cancer in women who drank one drink per day compared with women who did not drink. Increased alcohol consumption translated to increased risk.
In addition to the British review, an ongoing research project on women's health, called the Nurses' Health Study, found support for the potential cancer-triggering effects of alcohol. Data gathered from 105,986 women found that women who drink alcohol have a small increased risk of developing invasive breast cancer. Data from the Nurses' Health Study also showed that women who drink moderately and take hormone replacement therapy may have an even higher risk of developing breast cancer.
Some research has suggested that the risk of cancer is increased in women you drink alcohol and have lower folate levels.
Overall, there is consistent evidence that moderate to high level of alcohol consumption is associated with higher incidence of breast cancer compared to no drinking.
Minimizing Risk and Keeping a Healthy Perspective
The American Cancer Society recommends that women at risk for breast cancer limit their alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day. But there are no hard-and-fast guidelines regarding alcohol consumption with regard to breast cancer for every woman. That’s partly because more research is necessary. It’s also because each woman’s risk profile for breast cancer is different; therefore, each individual woman must consider her risk factors together with her doctor and decide which lifestyle modifications may be necessary.
If you’re concerned about alcohol and your risk for breast cancer, see your doctor and discuss what your individual risk factors may be. Researchers point out that it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of alcohol consumption with regard not only to breast cancer, but to other conditions, as well.
Remember, too, that alcohol consumption is just one of many lifestyle factors that may influence disease. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and not smoking—while not all necessarily related to breast cancer risk—are all important for overall health and well-being.
- Reviewer: Brian Randall, MD
- Review Date: 05/2012 -
- Update Date: 05/14/2012 -