Is there a link between breast cancer and alcohol?

I recently received a major shock when a special friend was diagnosed with breast cancer.  A standard scheduled mammogram discovered a lump in her breast that was subsequently found to be malignant and cancerous.  After a whirlwind of tests and procedures, she was rushed into surgery to remove the lump.  Initial indications are that surgery was successful, and hopefully life can return to normal, for everybody.

But will life ever return to normal? Will life ever be the same again?

Because of my general lack of knowledge of breast cancer, I did some basic research, and without fail, the same message jumped off the Google screen at me.

There is a link between breast cancer and alcohol.

There are mixed messages about whether alcohol is good or bad for you, and confusion about how much alcohol is safe to drink.  However the scientific evidence is clear.  There is no doubt that there is a link between breast cancer and alcohol.  So, how exactly does alcohol cause breast cancer?

Women need to know there is a link between breast cancer and alcohol

All women need to know there is an increased risk of breast cancer if you drink alcohol.  Even worse there is an increasing correlation between breast cancer and increasing alcohol consumption.  One standard drink of alcohol every day can increase the risk of breast cancer by 5%.  The risk increases with each subsequent drink, by as much as 10% for each additional drink.

Several studies have found that if you are female and drink more than 2 to 3 standard drinks of alcohol every day, then you have an elevated risk of breast cancer of 20%.  And the risk just keeps going higher in terms of the link between breast cancer and alcohol.

Perhaps a loved one has, or you yourself, have already had breast cancer.  Are you now questioning whether your lifetime consumption of alcohol could have been a contributing cause?  Or ‘the’ cause?  So was my friend, as she had been an alcohol drinker for all of her adult life.  If that’s the case, now is definitely the time to take charge of your breast health and you may find some helpful and comforting resources on recovery and moving on over at Life After Mastectomy – Breast Health (whether mastectomy has been part of the treatment, or not).

How does alcohol cause breast cancer?

There are several ways in which alcohol has been confirmed as cancer risk.

  • Estrogen.  Alcohol causes changes in the way estrogen is produced and metabolized in a woman’s body.  Drinking alcohol every day causes estrogen levels in the blood to be increased.  Studies have found a correlation between higher estrogen levels and increased rates of breast cancer.  In turn, there is a definite connection between breast cancer and alcohol.
  • Acetaldehyde.  Alcohol is defined as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research into Cancer (IARC).  One of the by-products of drinking alcohol is called acetaldehyde, which is formed in the liver when our body breaks down alcohol.  Acetaldehyde causes abnormal cell growth in the liver, and there is scientific evidence that cell growth is connected to a higher risk of developing cancer.
  • Overweight.  Many people struggle to keep their weight under control, and excessive weight is also a causal factor for increased risk of breast cancer.  Drinking alcohol can be a significant source of excess calories.  So being overweight can be a problem, and if drinking too much is also a problem, then women need to be especially aware of the link between breast cancer and alcohol.
  • Folate.  We are aware of the importance of having sufficient folate during pregnancy.  However, there is increasing understanding of the importance of folate and the repair of DNA within adults also.  Drinking alcohol has been shown to decrease levels of folate in the blood.  Low levels of folate could lead to abnormal cell growth, and thus could lead to high risk of developing cancer.  Again – notice the link between breast cancer and alcohol.

We need to sort the facts from the myths about alcohol and breast cancer:

Red Wine is Good for Health…

This is not true!  There is a proven connection between a woman developing breast cancer and alcohol.  Drinking one glass of alcohol per day can significantly increase the exposure to cancer, and the risk increases with each additional glass of alcohol.

There is no health benefit from drinking alcohol, and in fact the opposite is true.  Even if it were true, the risk of drinking too much alcohol can be a problem for many people due to the addictive nature of alcohol.

No one is safe from drinking too much alcohol, and as we have established, there is a clear link between breast cancer and alcohol.

Do Antiperspirants Cause Breast Cancer?

This rumour has been disproven, based on the available evidence.  There is little reason to believe that chemicals in antiperspirants cause breast cancer, in comparison with the link between breast cancer and alcohol.

Wearing of Bras

The rumour that Bras disrupt the normal operation of the lymphatic system, and increase the risk of cancer has not been proven.  A recent study could find no correlation between wearing a bra and increased risk of breast cancer.  The same could not be said for the dangerous link between breast cancer and alcohol.

Breast Implants

This is another rumour that has recently been disproven.  There are concerns and issues around the decision to have breast implants, however there is no proven link between implants and breast cancer.

How does alcohol cause Breast Cancer?

The focus of many studies into risk factors of breast cancer has been able to disprove many common myths and rumours.  At the same time, there are undeniable facts about the proven links between breast cancer and alcohol – don’t be confused by the false messages.

The biggest risk factor for breast cancer is the unavoidable fact of being a woman.

There are also some other factors that we cannot change, such as increased age, hereditary factors and the natural production of estrogen.

These are unavoidable.  But there are many lifestyle factors that we can control.

What Breast Cancer risk factors can we control?Does Alcohol Cause Breast Cancer

So if we can’t change the factors dictated at birth, then we need to understand what things we do have control over, and carefully consider how we apply that knowledge.

Diet and exercise are the most obvious lifestyle choices and we need to make the best decisions about our future health.

1.  Consumption of alcohol can cause breast cancer

We have already discussed the link between breast cancer and alcohol.  There is a proven risk link between cancer and drinking alcohol every day.  There is an even higher risk if we drink too much alcohol every day.  Clearly we need to moderate our consumption of alcohol.

If you have tried to moderate your consumption of alcohol and failed, perhaps there is a better way?  Maybe there is a reason to avoid alcohol completely.

2.  Being overweight

There is also a correlation between increased risk of cancer and being overweight.  Before menopause, estrogen is produced by the ovaries, and this is unavoidable.  However, excess fat can tend to increase the amount of estrogen.  After menopause, the ovaries no longer produce estrogen, but if you are overweight, estrogen levels stay high, and hence the risk of breast cancer stays high.  Beware that alcohol can cause weight gain, as well as contribute to higher breast cancer risk.

3.  Excess calories from drinking alcohol

If we are overweight, and tend to trend to drink alcohol every day, then we need to understand that there is an increased risk of developing breast cancer because of the proven link between breast cancer and alcohol.

Do you feel you need help to overcome the problem of alcohol and breast cancer?

Help to Stop Drinking

Sonya and I have poured our hearts and learnings into this neat online course:

How to Stop Drinking Alcohol and Love Being Free

And you can try it out for only $1 for the first month!