The connection between alcohol and breast cancer
Medical News Today
Medically reviewed by Faith Selchick, DNP, AOCNP, Nursing, Oncology — Written by Heather Grey on November 29, 2021
Current evidence suggests that alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer. Some research also links alcohol consumption to an increased risk of breast cancer recurrence or secondary breast cancer.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends avoiding alcohol or limiting alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
Research has linked alcohol consumption to an increased risk of breast cancer. This is because regularly drinking alcohol can:
- damage tissues
- cause oxidative stress to cells
- limit the body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients
- increase levels of estrogen, which is a hormone involved in breast tissue growth and development
No strong or consistent evidence suggests that drinking alcohol after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis makes the condition worse. However, alcohol consumption can have other negative effects on a person’s physical and mental health.
Alcohol can also impact a person’s treatment, increasing the risk of harmful drug interactions and side effects.
Read on to learn more about the connection between alcohol and breast cancer. This article also provides tips for limiting alcohol consumption.
Alcohol and breast cancer
Several factors can affect a person’s risk of breast cancer, including genetic and environmental factors. Alcohol consumption is one of the modifiable risk factors.
According to the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research, strong evidence indicates that drinking alcohol raises the risk of breast cancer.
Research has linked even light alcohol consumption to an increased risk. A 2018 review pooled the results of 60 past studies on alcohol and cancer, including 27 studies on breast cancer incidence. It found that:
- Drinking up to half an alcoholic drink per day raised the risk of breast cancer by 4%.
- Drinking up to one alcoholic drink per day raised the risk of breast cancer by 9%.
- Drinking one to two alcoholic drinks per day raised the risk of breast cancer by 13%.
The authors of this study defined one drink as containing 12.5 grams (g) of alcohol.
According to one 2020 review, studies have also found stronger links between alcohol consumption and breast cancer in North America than in other parts of the world.
More research is necessary to understand why this is. However, it might reflect regional differences in how frequently people binge drink, among other things.
Will drinking with breast cancer make it worse?
Few studies have looked at alcohol consumption following a breast cancer diagnosis.
Although more research is necessary, no strong or consistent evidence currently suggests that drinking alcohol reduces a person’s chance of surviving breast cancer. However, some evidence suggests that alcohol consumption may raise the risk of breast cancer recurrence or secondary breast cancer.
Drinking can also raise a person’s risk of other health conditions, such as:
- liver disease
- high blood pressure
A 2013 study involving 22,890 women with breast cancer in the United States found no link between post-diagnosis alcohol consumption and the risk of dying from breast cancer. However, women with breast cancer who drank less alcohol were less likely to die from any cause over an average follow-up period of 11.3 years.
A 2016 study involving 7,835 women with breast cancer in the U.S. found no link between post-diagnosis alcohol consumption and death from breast cancer or death from any cause.
Recurrence and spread
Some, but not all, evidence suggests that drinking alcohol may raise the risk of breast cancer recurrence or secondary breast cancer.
Recurrence happens when breast cancer returns after treatment. Secondary breast cancer happens when breast cancer spreads from the breast to other parts of the body.
One 2016 review pooled the results of 11 past studies on breast cancer recurrence and five past studies on secondary breast cancer. In total, roughly half of the studies linked alcohol consumption to an increased risk of recurrence or secondary breast cancer.
Two studies found a stronger link between alcohol consumption and recurrence in postmenopausal women compared with premenopausal women.
Steps to limit the risk
In a 2020 guideline, the ACS recommends avoiding or limiting alcohol consumption to reduce the risk of cancer.
If people do drink, the ACS advises them to limit their alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day if they are a woman and no more than two drinks per day if they are a man.
Following the tips below from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) may help people cut back on alcohol consumption and reduce their risk of alcohol-related problems.
People may find it helpful to set a goal or a limit on how much they plan to drink each day or week. Taking some days off drinking may help reduce overall alcohol consumption.
Tracking alcohol consumption may help people recognize when they are drinking too much.
People can use a variety of tools to track their alcohol consumption, such as:
- a smartphone app
- a wallet-sized drink tracker card
- a notebook and pen
Using a measuring shot glass or other tools to measure each drink may help people avoid over-pouring and underestimating their alcohol consumption.
A standard drink in the U.S. contains 14 g of pure alcohol, which is equivalent to:
- 12 fluid ounces (fl oz) of regular beer or cooler
- 8–9 fl oz of malt liquor
- 5 fl oz of table wine
- 1.5 fl oz of distilled alcohol, such as gin, rum, vodka, or whiskey
Avoid triggers and find alternatives
If certain people, places, or situations trigger the urge to drink, avoiding those things may help a person avoid drinking or limit their alcohol consumption.
It is also important to find healthy ways to cope with feelings that may push someone to drink, which may include:
Investing more time in hobbies, activities, or relationships that do not involve drinking may help someone fill their time and find a sense of fulfillment outside of situations that involve alcohol.
People who enjoy the taste of alcoholic beverages may find it helpful to explore alcohol-free alternatives, such as:
- alcohol-free soft seltzer
- nonalcoholic beer
Prepare to say ‘no’
Preparing to say “no, thanks” to a drink may help someone cope with moments when they are offered an unwanted alcoholic beverage.
In some cases, they may need to remind themselves why they are limiting or avoiding alcohol. It may help to carry a list of reasons with them in their wallet or smartphone.
Some people may also find it helpful to talk through their reasons with another person.
Get professional help
If someone finds it hard to limit or avoid alcohol, they may have alcohol use disorder. This is the inability to cut back on or stop drinking despite unwanted consequences. Professional support is available to treat this condition.
To treat alcohol use disorder, a doctor may prescribe medication, counseling, or a combination of both. Some people may also find it helpful to join a support group for people with alcohol use disorder.
Strong evidence indicates that drinking alcohol increases the risk of a breast cancer diagnosis.
More research is necessary to learn how drinking affects breast cancer in people who already have a diagnosis of the condition.
There is no strong or consistent evidence to suggest that drinking makes breast cancer worse. However, some evidence indicates that alcohol consumption may raise the risk of breast cancer recurrence and secondary breast cancer. Drinking may also contribute to other health problems.
The ACS recommends that women consume no more than one alcoholic drink per day and that men consume no more than two alcoholic drinks per day.
People who find it hard to avoid or limit alcohol may benefit from medication, counseling, or a combination of both to treat alcohol use disorder.