- A strong body of scientific evidence shows alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer.
- Many women remain unaware of the role alcohol can play in breast cancer risk.
- The Alcohol Research Group (ARG) in California is working to change that with the #DrinkLessForYourBreasts initiative, which seeks to educate women about the risk.
- No amount of alcohol is considered safe, but smaller amounts of alcohol have minimal risk.
For decades, researchers have been studying the connection between alcohol use and breast cancer, and a strong body of evidence shows drinking ups the risk.
Despite this work, many women in the United States remain unaware that drinking habits could affect their chance of getting cancer.
A new campaign from the Alcohol Research Group (ARG) in California aims to change that. The #DrinkLessForYourBreasts initiative seeks to educate women about the risk and urges them to consider the impact drinking alcohol can have on their health.
“The purpose of the campaign is to raise awareness among young women that alcohol is a risk factor for breast cancer,” Priscilla Martinez, PhD, a scientist with ARG, told Healthline.
“There is 30 years’ worth of evidence supporting this so we’re pretty confident that this relationship is real. But the vast majority of young women have no idea that alcohol is a risk factor for breast cancer.”
“We know that young women drink alcohol,” Martinez said. “It’s really common and sometimes they drink at levels that are unhealthy, like binge drinking. The goal of this campaign isn’t to shame women but to make them aware of the risk.”
The #DrinkLessForYourBreasts campaign is funded by the California Breast Cancer Research Program of the University of California.
The science behind the association between alcohol and breast cancer risk
While research has established that alcohol increases breast cancer risk, scientists are still working to understand the mechanism behind this link. However, there are several theories.
“We know that alcohol increases the amount of estrogen in the body, and for women and particularly postmenopausal women, that has a role in developing hormone-sensitive breast cancer,” explained Dr. Megan Kruse, a medical breast oncologist at Cleveland Clinic who is not involved with the ARG campaign.
Alcohol also makes it more difficult for the body to absorb folate and other nutrients. “Folate is important because it helps to fix and maintain your DNA,” Martinez said. “When your DNA isn’t properly maintained it’s more likely to be damaged and cells that have damaged DNA are more likely to be cancerous.”
Kruse notes another cause for concern is that alcohol tends to increase an individual’s caloric intake.
“We know that there’s a link between weight gain, particularly extra tissue related to fat cells, and cancers,” she said. “So when you think of alcohol leading to extra calories and weight gain, that might be an indirect way that it’s contributing to cancer formation.”
In addition to breast cancer, alcohol consumption is linked to cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, liver, and colon and rectum, according to the American Cancer Society.
Is any amount of alcohol safe?
When it comes to breast cancer risk, no amount of alcohol is considered safe.
“Any amount can raise the risk,” Kruse said. “But smaller amounts of alcohol raise the risk very minimally.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), moderate alcohol consumption is defined as one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less per day for men. Yet, even this amount is considered risky.
“Even one drink a day or seven drinks a week increases your risk,” Martinez said “and the relationship between alcohol use and breast cancer risk is linear, meaning the risk continues to go up the more we drink. Fortunately, when you decrease your drinking, you also decrease your risk.”
Additionally, the type of alcohol consumed does not make a difference to cancer risk.
“Ethanol is ethanol. Your body doesn’t care,” Martinez said.
One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.
How women can mitigate the risk
The message that no amount of alcohol is safe when it comes to breast cancer risk is not an easy one for many people to swallow.
“Alcohol is a major way we socialize and is a part of our culture,” Martinez said.
But the overall goal of the #DrinkLessForYourBreasts campaign is not to shame women, she said, but to make them aware of the risk and to empower them to make their own choices.
“Breast cancer, like all diseases, is really complicated,” Martinez said. “It’s rarely ever one thing that gives you something else. It’s often a combination of factors.”
“There are a lot of things about breast cancer risk that we can’t control like genes, environmental exposures, and physical attributes such as breast density,” she continued. “But we do have control over lifestyle factors like how much alcohol we drink.”
When having practical conversations around alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk with her patients, Kruse says a number that is typically agreed upon is one to two drinks per week.
“That seems to be a level of risk that we as providers are comfortable with and our patients are comfortable with,” she said. “Ultimately, we leave it up to patients to determine if those couple of drinks matter to them and if the risk is worthwhile, but I think that’s a level of alcohol intake that we feel is manageable from a cancer risk standpoint but also allows patients to participate in the celebrations or day-to-day life activities that are enjoyable for them.”
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