Alcohol and Breast Cancer Risk

Does drinking alcohol raise your risk of breast cancer?

Woman wine tasting red wine should worry about risk of breast cancer
Credit: Caiaimage/Martin Barra?ud/Getty Images

Alcohol consumption is a risk factor for breast cancer. In fact, the more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of developing the condition—and of having a worse breast cancer type.

There are not many effective methods of reducing your breast cancer risk, and cutting back on alcohol is one of the important ways to decrease your chances of developing the disease, especially if you are at high risk for breast cancer.

The Link Between Alcohol and Breast Cancer

Alcohol is not the leading risk factor for breast cancer—and alcohol is more closely tied to a number of other illnesses than it is to breast cancer. While the association between alcohol consumption and breast cancer is not strong, there is a definite link. Alcohol accounts for about eight percent of newly diagnosed breast cancers and about seven percent of breast cancer deaths.

Breast cancer affects one in every 12 women throughout their lifetimes. Alcohol consumption increases that risk. If a woman consumes 10 grams of alcohol per day, (12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine), the risk of breast cancer increases by seven percent. And for every additional 10 grams daily, that risk continues to rise by another seven percent.

Heavy alcohol consumption affects the risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women, as well as in younger, premenopausal women. Binge drinking and/or heavy drinking, especially at a young age, increase the chance of developing breast cancer later in life. But moderate drinkers are not off the hook—18 percent of alcohol-related breast cancers are associated with light alcohol consumption (10 grams of alcohol per day).

Alcohol-associated breast cancer is more likely to be of the hormone receptor-positive type, which can be treated with certain hormone inhibitors. Alcohol consumption is also associated with more aggressive, fast-growing tumors.

Experts suggest that alcohol raises the risk of developing breast cancer, and also makes breast cancer more aggressive if you already have it.

Men, Alcohol and Breast Cancer

Alcohol affects women differently than it affects men, often resulting in more serious health consequences for women. But alcohol has an even stronger effect on male breast cancer than it does on breast cancer in females, accounting for 16 percent of breast cancers in men.

How Alcohol Raises Breast Cancer Risk

Alcohol increases the risk of several medical illnesses (such as liver disease, neuropathy, and dementia), as well as many types of cancer (such as pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, and stomach cancer).

According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, alcoholic beverages are considered to be carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). In addition to causing cancer, alcohol facilitates cancer growth when cancer has already started. 

Alcohol promotes the initiation and growth of cancer through several mechanisms, including:

  • Liver disease: Alcohol often leads to liver failure, which can be life-threatening. The liver is involved with many physiological functions, including maintaining healthy immunity. The immune system helps fight cancer, and when the liver is impaired, cancer has a higher chance of enlarging and spreading.
  • Oxidative stress: Oxidative stress is a byproduct of normal metabolism that induces damage to DNA—which can initiate cancer. Alcohol metabolism increases oxidative stress in the body.
  • Breakdown of tissue: Alcohol consumption results in toxic byproducts that break down tissues throughout the body. If a person has cancer, the breakdown of epithelial tissue (tissue that lines the body) facilitates metastasis (spread) of cancer.

In addition to its general carcinogenic effects, alcohol also has actions that specifically raise the risk of breast cancer.

  • Increasing estrogen levels: Alcohol metabolism raises estrogen levels in the body, especially estradiol and estrone. Higher estrogen levels elevate the risk of breast cancer, and chronic or irregular exposure to elevated estrogen can have a lasting effect on breast cancer risk, increasing the chances of developing the disease years down the road.

A Word From Verywell

All types of cancer—including breast cancer—develop in response to a combination of factors. If you have other risk factors for breast cancer—such as family history, genetic predisposition, or estrogen replacement therapy—you can lower your risk by avoiding alcohol. 

Keep in mind that there are other important modifiable risk factors for breast cancer, including smoking cessation, avoiding artificial additives in your food, and maintaining a healthy weight, which can all reduce your breast cancer risk.

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