Washington, DC – October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the cancer prevention experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) are using the occasion to underscore the clear and convincing role alcohol consumption plays in breast cancer risk.
“The evidence gathered and analyzed in our expert report and its recent update makes one thing very clear,” said AICR spokesperson Alice Bender, MS RD. “When it comes to breast cancer, any level of alcohol consumption raises women’s risk.
The experts note that two other well-established risk factors, obesity and inactivity, increase risk for breast cancer to a greater degree than alcohol consumption. Approximately 1 in 5 cases of breast cancer are attributable to carrying excess body fat, and roughly the same amount to being inactive.
By comparison, roughly 1 in 10 breast cancers could be prevented by not drinking.
For Breast Cancer, No Safe Level
The cancer research organization’s advice on alcohol is clear: “If consumed at all, alcohol consumption should be limited to one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men.” (One drink = 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces. of wine, and 1.5 ounces. of liquor).
That recommendation reflects the evidence that small amounts of alcoholic drinks may offer some protection against heart disease. But for women who find themselves at high risk for breast cancer, the key phrase in AICR’s advice is “If consumed at all,” says Bender.
“If you’re specifically concerned about breast cancer, or other cancers linked to alcohol, the best advice is not to drink alcohol at all. In any form,” she says.
Alcohol is convincingly linked to increased risk for cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, colorectum and liver, as well as that of the breast (both pre- and post-menopause).
But What About Red Wine?
Media reports on studies showing that a substance in red wine called resveratrol (a natural component of red and purple grapes and grape juices) displays anti-cancer activity in the laboratory may have some women reaching for the Cabernet. But while the benefits of resveratrol continue to be researched, the clear evidence that alcohol raises human cancer risk, regardless of whether it’s consumed as wine, beer or liquor, should encourage those women to find other options, Bender said.
Women can get resveratrol from grapes and other berries, for example, which supply plenty of other healthful compounds and nutrients that are also being studied for cancer prevention.
Why Is the Link So Strong?
A woman’s risk for breast cancer increases as alcohol consumption increases. There are several reasons for this.
Women metabolize alcohol more slowly than men, so alcohol stays in a woman’s bloodstream longer. This increased exposure means more cellular damage of the kind that can trigger cancer.
Women have less water in their bodies than men do, so alcohol is less able to dissolve and remains more concentrated in women.
Alcohol also influences blood levels of estrogen and other hormones in ways that may make breast cancer more likely.
What Can A Woman Do To Lower Her Risk?
Carrying BRCA-1 or other “cancer genes” doesn’t make cancer inevitable. For women who carry these genes or who have a family history of breast cancer, focusing on the small, everyday choices that have been shown to lower risk is even more important, not less.
- Do not drink alcohol.
- Move more, in any way, for at least 30 minutes every day.
- Stay a healthy weight throughout life.
- If you give birth to children, breastfeed them.
In time for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, AICR has launched a new web resource, Learn About Breast Cancer , where you can keep up with the latest AICR research on breast cancer prevention and survival, learn about breast cancer preventability, and find materials for breast cancer survivors, all in an easy-to-read format.