Last Updated on March 30, 2021
Breast cancer is among the most common, and the most dangerous forms of cancer affecting women. The American Cancer Society1 estimates that 1 in 8 women in the United States will face this disease at some point in their lives, and that in 2020 alone 42,170 women will die from it.
While a number of risk factors2 for breast cancer are beyond anyone’s control, cutting back on alcohol may be one way to reduce your chances of getting the disease. Drinking less can also make some aspects of treatment easier to manage if you’ve already been diagnosed.
The Connection Between Alcohol and Breast Cancer
While the exact numbers vary, most data shows a strong link between how much you drink, and your risk of developing breast cancer.
In one 2013 meta-analysis3 of 53 different studies, moderate drinking increased breast cancer risk by 30 to 50 percent. In another analysis4, involving 106,000 women over 28 years, as few as 3-6 drinks per week increased women’s risk by 15 percent. A 2015 study5 of 45,233 women in Sweden found less of a connection, but still showed greater breast cancer risk among women with a lower BMI (Body Mass Index) who drank more heavily.
All in all, most evidence suggests that the more you drink, the higher your risk of breast cancer. There also appears to be a link between alcohol and more aggressive types of tumors, which can be harder to treat. Ultimately, limiting your alcohol consumption is generally a good idea for breast cancer prevention.
How Much Alcohol is Safe?
Researchers vary in their definition of “safe” drinking when it comes to cancer. Moderate drinking is often defined as one alcoholic drink a day for women, or two a day for men. Sticking to these guidelines will keep most people clear of alcohol use disorder. But when it comes to breast cancer, could a glass of wine a day still be one too many?
This ultimately depends on the individual. If you already know that you are at high risk for breast cancer, you may want to avoid alcohol for the most part. If you don’t carry many risk factors for cancer, but have a family history of heart disease, a daily drink may actually have some positive impact.
The relationship of alcohol to women’s health is complex. Moderate drinking appears to increase levels of estrogen, for example. This can in turn increase breast cancer risk, especially before menopause. But this also means that alcoholic beverages which do less to boost estrogen, such as red wine, might not be so risky. And for older women, the health benefits of increased estrogen may outweigh the negatives.
The decision about how much alcohol is healthy for you depends on many factors. At the end of the day, the more you know about your personal health and your family history, the better you’ll be able to decide.
Why Does Drinking Alcohol Increase the Risk of Breast Cancer?
Research is ongoing into exactly why alcohol increases breast cancer risk. Factors include:
- Weight gain from empty calories: Heavy drinking often means consuming extra carbohydrates, which the body then stores as fat. Excess fat has been shown to increase the risk of cancer6.
- Alcohol’s weakening effect on the immune system7: Heavy drinking compromises your body’s ability to fight off illnesses, including cancer. It also puts extra stress on your liver, which plays an important role in your immunity.
- Oxidative stress8: Alcohol can increase the number of “free radicals” in your system, which can in turn damage your DNA, leading to cancer.
- Increased estrogen9: As discussed above, most forms of alcohol result in higher estrogen production. Although this can have some positive health impacts, multiple studies have also linked this to increased breast cancer risk.
These are some of the most commonly referenced links between alcohol and breast cancer, but there may be more. Needless to say, drinking heavily increases your risk of cancer in general. Reducing how much you consume is a good idea for the health of your whole body.
Alcohol and Breast Cancer Recurrence
At the moment, it is still unclear whether drinking alcohol has any impact on the recurrence of breast cancer. Some studies have shown a higher rate of recurrence in women who drink moderately after menopause. Others have found little to no connection.
The After Breast Cancer Pooling Project10, for example, found that drinking had little effect on the rate of recurrence or survival, with the exception of a slight increase in risk of recurrence for older women. Another large study11 found no connection at all, and even suggested that moderate drinking might boost overall longevity among women with breast cancer.
On the other hand, a Danish study from 201212 found a connection between heavier drinking pre-diagnosis and the recurrence of tumors. And an Australian meta-analysis13 found that there was a modest connection overall—with, once again, a higher risk for women post-menopause.
Overall, it seems that the biggest risk concerning alcohol and breast cancer is your likelihood of getting the disease in the first place. Alcohol use may increase the chances of it returning as well, but the jury is still out on how significant a factor it is.
Breast Cancer Radiation Treatment and Alcohol
In general, physicians recommend that patients limit alcohol intake14 before, during, and after radiation treatment for any type of cancer. Small amounts may not interfere with the treatment, but drinking can still aggravate common side effects. These include the mouth or throat sores that many people get from radiation.
The same is true for chemotherapy. Alcohol can sometimes worsen the side effects of treatment, or interact poorly with medications prescribed alongside chemotherapy drugs. This can make the management of issues like depression, anxiety, and insomnia more difficult. Finally, alcohol puts an additional strain on your liver, which may already be under stress from the medications you’re taking.
If you’re already undergoing cancer treatment, talk to your doctor about your specific situation, and whether drinking alcohol might have a negative impact.
Reducing How Much You Drink
If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, or feel you are at high risk for developing the disease, it’s probably a good idea to limit the amount of alcohol you consume.
If you’re struggling to cut back, or quit drinking, Ria Health’s at-home program can make the process much easier. We combine online coaching, medications that reduce alcohol cravings, and digital progress-tracking tools. Best of all, the whole thing is physician-managed, and can be done entirely from your smartphone.
Schedule a call today to find out how Ria can help you establish a healthier relationship with alcohol.