How Alcohol Increases Breast Cancer Risk: What Women Need To Know

"The risk increases even at low levels of drinking."
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Just one in five women know alcohol can increase a person’s risk of breast cancer, research suggests. Researchers surveyed women attending breast clinics and screening appointments in the UK about their awareness of breast cancer risk factors.

Overall, 66.5% of women surveyed said they drank alcohol, but only around one in six (16%) in the screening group and around one in four (23%) in the breast clinic group knew that alcohol is a risk factor.

The relatively small study, published in the BMJ, could indicate the need for more awareness nationwide. So if you’re partial to a glass of wine, cheeky gin or bottle of craft beer, here’s what you need to know.

Alcohol causes seven types of cancer, including breast, mouth and bowel cancers, according to Cancer Research UK.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, with more than 54,000 new cases diagnosed and 11,000 deaths every year. Around 8% of breast cases each year are thought to be caused by drinking alcohol, the charity says, and “the risk increases even at low levels of drinking”.

A study led by Washington University School of Medicine suggested “compared with other organs, breast appears to be more susceptible to carcinogenic effects of alcohol”. The research cited previous studies that have found a woman’s risk of breast cancer increases 7–10% for each 10g (around one drink) of alcohol consumed daily. This increase was noted among women who have yet to experience menopause, as well as women who were post-menopausal.

It’s not entirely known why alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer, but it is thought to be linked to the idea that alcohol alters the levels of hormones in the body, including oestrogen, says Breast Cancer Now.

“Oestrogen performs many important roles in the body, but can also increase the growth of some breast cancers. There may be other ways that alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer, but these are not yet clear,” the charity says.

If you’re concerned about the links between breast cancer and alcohol, a good place to start is sticking to the NHS’ recommended alcohol guidelines, which state that men and women should not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis.

Breast Cancer Now offers these tips for people who want to cut down their alcohol intake:

  • Try swapping strong beers or wine for ones with a lower strength (ABV)

  • If you’re drinking at home, measure out your drinks to track your intake

  • It can be useful to track your drinking with an app or diary

  • Try having an alcohol free day once or twice a week

  • Talk things over with friends or family who can help support you

  • Try spacing out your drinks in an evening with soft drinks or mocktails.