Carolyn McAnlis, Dietitian and Pink Hope Outreach Ambassador discusses alcohol and breast cancer in this blog post.
It has been well established through research studies that heavy alcohol consumption can raise the risk of many types of cancer, especially those in the gastrointestinal tract. But why does that happen, and does it apply to breast cancer as well?
High alcohol consumption causes inflammation and damage in the body’s DNA, which over time can cause head and neck, oesophageal, liver, colorectal – and breast cancer. It is estimated that 2950 cases of cancer in Australia are due to long term chronic use of alcohol each year.
An analysis of over 50 studies (which examined more than 58,000 women in total) discovered that women who drank roughly three or more drinks per day had a risk of developing breast cancer about 1.5 times higher than the women who did not drink. Three drinks per day may seem excessive; however, the risk of breast cancer increased for all quantities of alcohol intake. For every 10 grams of alcohol consumed per day, which is just under one serving, a 7% increase in the risk of breast cancer was found. This is a small increase, but shows that even one drink per day has an effect. Researchers estimate that risk rises another 10% for each additional drink women have on a daily basis. This means an average woman who drinks two standard drinks on a daily basis would increase her lifetime average breast cancer from 12.5% to 15.6%.
The effect of alcohol in increasing breast cancer risk has been shown in women of all levels of breast cancer risk and in the development of both premenopausal and post-menopausal breast cancer.
In general alcohol is a known cancer causing agent. Researchers have identified several reasons why regular alcohol consumption may increase the risk of cancer. These include;
- The breakdown of alcohol produces a toxic chemical has a damaging effect on cells and their ability to repair DNA damage, which can lead to cancer development.
- Alcohol can cause the depletion of vitamins and induce processes in the body that can contribute to poor health. Poor health is known to be associated with increased cancer risk.
- Alcohol also increases blood levels of oestrogen. Prolonged lifetime oestrogen exposure is a known risk factor for women developing breast cancer especially the most common breast cancer type being oestrogen receptor positive cancers. This is of particular importance for women who have been through menopause and should have naturally low levels of oestrogen.
If you are planning or preparing for surgery cutting down on alcohol prior to surgery may be wise. In a study done at the National Institute of Public Health in Denmark, subjects consuming three or more drinks per day were 73% more likely to contract an infection post-surgery.. This finding is likely to be explained because regular heavy drinking also appears to compromises the immune system and slows wound healing. Therefore if you do drink regularly it may be wise to speak to your surgeon about how best to prepare for surgery and whether you should reduce your alcohol intake before and after surgery.
Eliminating alcohol altogether isn’t currently recommended as a cancer prevention strategy. This is because there is evidence that moderate red wine intake may be beneficial to a person heart health. However reducing alcohol intake to no more than two standard drinks a few times a week may help to reduce any unnecessary potential increases in risk either breast cancer or other cancers.