The Sobering Truth about Alcohol and Breast Cancer
I started researching this post for International Women’s Day and uncovered some staggering facts. I knew alcohol raised the risk of breast cancer, but I didn’t know that even two drinks a day increased risk significantly.
Recent large studies revealed some sobering facts about alcohol and breast cancer risk:
- Women who have as few as three drinks a week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer.
- For each additional drink that women have per day, risk of breast cancer increases by an extra 10%. This means if you have one drink per day four days of the week and two drinks three days of the week, your risk of breast cancer increases by 25%.
There are many reasons why this gets me worried.
- I’m a family physician/general practitioner. I know about prevention for cancer. Yet I didn’t know that even a modest amount of alcohol raised your risk of breast cancer.
- Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women.
- I enjoy drinking alcohol in moderation. To me it’s a way of relaxing at the end of the day (though in recent times I’ve made a concerted effort not to make this a daily ritual), celebrating milestones, and socialising. I love cocktails with the girls, tall flutes of bubbly, a good Pinot Noir, and a nice refreshing Sauvignon Blanc on warm summer nights.
But the most worrying thing of all is that I believe that the truth about alcohol and breast cancer risk is not publicised enough. This may be because women don’t want to have a conversation about alcohol and breast cancer. We don’t want to face the thought of giving up our wine, vodka or whatever our favourite poison is. Only 12% of women in a recent survey were interested in learning how to reduce their drinking to reduce breast cancer risk.
We’re also told that some red wine is good for health, so we enjoy toasting to this. (I rarely tell my patients that a bit of red wine helps to increase good cholesterol levels, because I know exactly what will happen if I dole out this advice!)
I got increasingly worried as I visited the prominent Breast Cancer awareness websites in Australia – the Breast Cancer Foundation and Breast Cancer Network. On the “About Breast Cancer” page of the Breast Cancer Foundation, it states that “Research has shown a strong link between alcohol and the risk of developing breast cancer” and then recommends to “try and limit your alcohol intake to no more than two standard drinks a day“.
On the Breast Cancer Network website, there is no mention of alcohol as a risk factor. There is also no mention of other lifestyle factors such as being overweight and not doing exercise, and having an unhealthy diet. Instead, the “About Breast Cancer” page emphasises risk factors that women cannot change, such as increasing age and genetic risk.
Surprisingly, there is no mention of the lifestyle changes that women can make to reduce risk of breast cancer.
When I had a look to see if there were any fundraising events in Australia that highlighted abstinence from alcohol as a risk factor for breast cancer, I found none. Instead I found lots of fun runs, which is fantastic of course, but also morning teas, afternoon teas, cocktail evenings, and even pink chocolates. While it is great to see so many fundraising efforts, surely these events are not in the spirit of increasing awareness about how to prevent breast cancer, because they promote exactly the fun things that unfortunately increase breast cancer risk (calorie-laden foods and alcohol). I did find a Dryathlon in the UK which raises funds for cancer.
In recent times, there have been yearly events that promote abstinence, such as Ocsober, Febfast, and Dry July. These support empowering young people through education, helping youth kick addiction, and improving the lives of people living with cancer. I think there should be a similar event for breast cancer. I have been thinking of starting a fundraising event via the Breast Cancer Foundation, but am struggling with a catchy name. Drink Less for your Breasts? Give Up Booze for your Boobs? I’m thinking May would be an ideal month – as this is the month that Mother’s Day falls on in Australia. I’m also thinking I personally need a kick up the butt with this sort of thing. Alcohol is all too often an easy form of relaxation and leisure. I should be putting my money where my mouth is, and fighting the easy habit of reaching for a drink.
The Breast Cancer Organisation page in the USA has excellent articles on changing your lifestyle to reduce your risk of breast cancer. These include maintaining a healthy weight and increasing physical activity. Breast cancer risk has to be taken in context, as there are many factors that affect individual risk. You can find out about your breast cancer risk, and how you can reduce it, by using this risk calculator. I often use this in clinic with my patients, especially if they are worried because of a family history of breast cancer.
So this year I challenge all my fellow drinkers to cut out alcohol for one month. When I come up with a catchy name for a fundraiser, I’ll post about it (suggestions are welcomed!!) In the meantime, I’m going to stick to my 80/20 rule – during the week I will avoid alcohol, and on the weekend I’ll have one or two drinks. Here’s a reminder about standard drink sizes, and I urge everyone to remember that the standard wine pour is usually a lot more than one drink.