Healthy Aging

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Drinking and Breast Cancer – An Inconvenient Truth?

With apologies to our former Vice President — whose use of the term “inconvenient truth” has recently received the Nobel Prize — there is another increasingly apparent world-wide phenomena regarding human health that must be discussed. For years, many reports have surfaced that drinking alcohol increases a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. These reports have largely been ignored because of widespread and popular data showing that drinking alcohol, particularly red wine, in moderation, reduces cardiovascular disease. A recent study conducted in the United States with more than 70,000 women has found a clear and real relationship between alcohol consumption and the development of breast cancer.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. This disease, which occurs in one out of nine women, has a cure rate of up to 90 percent, if detected early. However, it often is fatal.

Risk factors include heredity (sister or mother with the disease), diet, smoking, menarche and aging. Now, alcohol consumption can be added to the list of risk factors. In study after study, women who consume alcohol are more likely to have breast cancer than women who do not.

Dose Effect and Type of Alcohol

The incidence of cancer is affected by the amount of alcohol consumed. In women who consume between one and two drinks per day, the risk of developing breast cancer is approximately 10 percent. The risk increases to approximately 30 to 40 percent in women who drink four or more per day.

This relationship between number of drinks and risk is known as dose response. The more a woman drinks, the more she increases her risk of developing breast cancer.

Another disconcerting fact is that it does not matter what a woman drinks. If a woman consumes alcohol of any kind, including beer, hard liquor, and red and white wine, cancer risk is increased. Alcohol is labeled as a carcinogen or cancer causing chemical.

When women consume alcohol, they are willingly increasing their risk of cancer. Women who drink and smoke expose themselves to an even higher incidence of breast cancer because tobacco is also a carcinogen. Women who smoke are also at higher risk for other types of cancer such as liver, mouth, esophagus and colon. 

What Are We Supposed to Do?

Alcohol is ubiquitous. Many men and women are accustomed to drinking, usually in moderation. Some studies that show that red wine in moderation can reduce risk of stroke and heart attack by 10 to 15 percent. However, alcohol is the third greatest cause of preventable death in the United States. Most of these deaths are related to traffic accidents, but cancer is a close second.

Women who have a family history of breast cancer should be well advised to drink very little or not at all. They also should not smoke.

Women who want to be sociable or imbibe should do so in moderation, as with all things.

Although this news may be inconvenient or uncomforting, the facts are irrefutable — drinking is harmful to people’s health, especially in women who are at risk for breast cancer. Online Health Library Related Links:
General Information About Breast Cancer

Related Audio Podcasts

Breast Cancer Program: Surgical Treatment for Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer Program: Mammography and Breast MRI

South Carolina Breast Cancer Centers: High Risk Screening

Signs & Symptoms of Breast Cancer

The following are the most common symptoms of breast cancer. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Early breast cancer usually does not cause pain and may cause no symptoms at all. And, some breast cancers never cause symptoms or other indications of a problem.

As the cancer grows, however, it can cause changes that women and men should watch for, such as:

  • a lump or thickening (a mass, swelling, skin irritation, or distortion) in or near the breast or in the underarm area
  • a change in the size or shape of the breast
  • a change in the color or feel of the skin of the breast, areola, or nipple (dimpled, puckered, or scaly)
  • nipple discharge, erosion, inversion, or tenderness

A woman (or man) should consult a physician when any of these changes are noticed. Call 1-800-424-MUSC or contact MUSC Health Connection online to make an appointment.


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