Alcohol Consumption and Breast Cancer Risk — A Refresher Course

Breast Cancer Risk Alcohol Consumption

If you haven’t noticed the slew of pink-toned campaigns yet — including Savage x Thriver’s limited edition line of pink lingerie, modeled by women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer — here’s your official reminder: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Now that it’s here again, let’s set straight the link between breast cancer and alcohol consumption so that you can make an informed decision about your health that you can feel comfortable with.

Alcohol consumption is one of the few things that we can control, in terms of our breast cancer risk — and, for most people, is one of the easiest factors that we can control. Both the CDC and the American Cancer Society cite cutting out alcohol as a preventative measure for breast cancer. The bottom line is that drinking alcohol, as far as we know it, raises the likelihood that you’ll develop breast cancer. 

Light Drinking Raises Cancer Risk, but Not by Much

The current recommendation from the medical establishment for all non-pregnant women is to limit alcohol consumption to one serving per day. However, a 2017 study determined that even light drinking raises a person’s risk for breast cancer, causing a bit of a meltdown on the Internet among people who were unable to put those findings into context. I mean, haven’t the experts been telling us that a glass of wine each evening was acceptable, and possibly even beneficial for our health? If alcohol consumption is linked to breast cancer, then why is anyone drinking any alcohol at all?

Here’s the important context to this revelation: The study found that drinking any amount of alcohol leads to an increased risk of breast cancer, but it raises an individual’s risk by just 4 percent relative to their risk if they hadn’t consumed any alcohol. We don’t have definitive proof, but research suggests that women who drink heavily may be increasing their risk of breast cancer because of the way that alcohol can affect their intake of folate. Alcohol consumption can also raise estrogen levels, which can lead to an increase in breast cancer risk. 

An analysis in the New York Times explained what this 4 percent increased relative risk would look like for a 40-year-old-woman, who on average, has a 1.45 percent chance of developing breast cancer before she turns 50. If she were to drink lightly, her risk would go up to 1.51 percent. If she drank heavily, her risk would go up to 2.33 percent. So, yes, drinking alcohol raises one’s risk for breast cancer, but not by much. Furthermore, many analyses, including that of the Times, have pointed out that light to moderate drinking can have a protective effect against other conditions like heart disease that post a greater mortality risk overall. 

The takeaway from this is that cutting out or reducing your intake of alcohol is one small way for you to lower your breast cancer risk, but considering how limited the benefits are to a healthy person, this lifestyle choice isn’t going to make as big of a difference as you might hope — and may very well increase your risk, albeit marginally, for other illnesses. 

Other Ways to Reduce Breast Cancer Risk

There are a few other ways for you to reduce your risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer. For one thing, maintaining a healthy weight and integrating regular exercise into your lifestyle — two factors that essentially reduce your risk for any medical condition — have preventative effects, likely because of their anti-inflammatory benefits. 

New or expectant mothers can also reduce their risk for breast cancer by breastfeeding for at least a few months, while women on estrogen-based hormone therapy or hormonal birth control may face a higher risk. For women who are genetically predisposed to developing breast cancer, such as carriers of BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, undergoing preventative mastectomies may be an option.