Many people are unaware that alcohol can increase your risk for breast cancer. It’s important to understand what breast cancer is, and how alcohol interacts with your body.
Understanding Alcohol and Breast Cancer
In 2018, over 250,000 people in the United States received a breast cancer diagnosis, and 42,465 died of it. That makes breast cancer the fourth highest cause of death among all cancers. With such a high prevalence, it’s important to understand what you can do to reduce your risk, and that starts with alcohol.
For decades, researchers have been examining the link between alcohol and breast cancer. What has followed is a strong, conclusive body of evidence that shows alcohol consumption raises the risk.
One study, published in 2015, found that alcohol consumption increases the risk for breast cancer by as much as 16%. However, in a 2020 analysis of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, only about one in four individuals ages 15 to 44 knows that alcohol is a risk factor for breast cancer. This is extremely concerning, especially considering that alcohol consumption is among the most preventable risk factors for cancer.
Another study, published in 2009, found that drinking even a few alcoholic beverages per week (three to four drinks) increased the risk of breast cancer coming back in women who’d been diagnosed with early-stage disease.
Despite years of conclusive evidence, many people are still unaware of this connection. This is extremely concerning, especially considering that alcohol consumption is among the most preventable risk factors for cancer.
Why Does Alcohol Increase Your Risk for Breast Cancer?
Even with such a large body of evidence to support it, many people are still unaware that alcohol consumption increases your risk for breast cancer. But, why does alcohol increase your risk for breast cancer? While scientists have shown there’s a definitive link, that question remains unanswered. However, there are several leading theories as to why.
“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.
Alcohol also disrupts the body’s ability to absorb folate and other nutrients. Folate is a vitamin that helps your body fix and maintain your DNA. When your body is unable to absorb folate, your DNA is more likely to be damaged. This damage is what allows cells to become cancerous.
Another potential cause for the relationship between alcohol and breast cancer is caloric intake. Alcohol tends to increase the number of calories a person consumes, which can lead to obesity and other health complications.
“We know that there’s a link between weight gain, particularly extra tissue related to fat cells, and cancers,” Kurse 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.”
Finally, alcohol has been linked to several other cancers, those being cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon. Having cancer significantly increases your risk for developing other cancers, such as breast cancer according to the American Cancer Society.
While alcohol consumption remains one of the most effective ways to reduce your risk for breast cancer, there are several other risk factors you should be aware of.
What Else Can Increase Your Risk for Breast Cancer?
Many other factors can increase your risk for breast cancer. Some risk factors, like alcohol consumption, are preventable, while others are a mixture of family history or genetics.
Below is a list of risk factors for breast cancer, both preventable and unavoidable.
Risk Factors for Breast Cancer You Can’t Change
Age: Your risk for breast cancer increases as you get older. As we get older, our cells can get damaged over time. This damage can then build up as we age, and can sometimes lead to cancer. Due to this, the majority of breast cancer cases are diagnosed after the age of 50.
Family History: A person’s risk for developing breast cancer increases significantly if they have a close family member such as a mother, sister, or daughter, who has had breast cancer. Their risk also increases if they have a first-degree male relative who has breast cancer.
Genes: Certain inherited changes (mutations) to specific genes can cause you to have a higher likelihood of developing certain cancers. The most common of these genes being BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are responsible for helping repair damaged DNA. People who have inherited these genetic changes are at higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
Reproductive History: People who have early menstrual periods, typically before the age of 12, or who start menopause after age 55 are more likely to develop breast cancer. This is because these expose the individual to hormones longer than usual, thus increasing the risk for breast cancer.
Having Dense Breasts: Dense breasts have more connective tissue than fatty tissue, which can sometimes make it hard to see tumors on a mammogram. Women with dense breasts are more likely to get breast cancer.
Personal History of Cancer: Although not specific to breast cancer, having any type of cancer increases your risk of developing a second case. This is known as a “second cancer” and occurs in about one to three percent of cancer survivors.
Risk Factors for Breast Cancer You Can Change
Not Being Physically Active: Individuals who are not physically active have a higher risk of getting breast cancer.
Being Overweight: People who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of getting breast cancer than those at a lower weight.
Taking Hormones: Some hormones have been shown to increase your risk for breast cancer. These hormones typically include both estrogen and progesterone, which are usually taken during menopause. Individuals who use these hormones for more than five years have a higher likelihood of developing breast cancer.
Reproductive History: Having the first pregnancy after the age of 30, not breastfeeding, and never having a child all have been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
Drinking Alcohol: As previously mentioned, alcohol consumption does increase your risk for breast cancer. Other chemicals such as tobacco are thought to also increase your risk, although more research is needed to determine to what extent.
So, what’s the bottom line? Does alcohol increase your risk for breast cancer? Yes, most studies show that a person’s risk for breast cancer increases with the more alcohol they consume. Does this mean that you need to abstain from alcohol altogether? No. While any amount of alcohol can raise your risk, smaller amounts do so very minimally. Remember, the relationship between alcohol use and breast cancer risk is linear, meaning your risk continues to go up the more you drink. Thankfully, this risk can be lowered by simply cutting back or decreasing the amount of alcohol you drink.
Having difficulty cutting back on your drinking? You may be suffering from a substance use disorder. If you suspect that yourself or someone you know needs help with addiction, the time to get help is now. Talk with your doctor or a healthcare professional about what treatments are best for you.
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