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Alcohol and Breast Cancer

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Many people have read about the link between alcohol and breast cancer in the news.  For decades, scientists have studied the link between drinking alcohol and the development, recurrence, and severity of breast cancer.  This article will address some common questions about alcohol and breast cancer.


Women respond differently to alcohol than men do.  Upon consuming the same amount of alcohol, women have higher levels of alcohol in the blood and have a quicker and longer lasting response to alcohol.  Since women have an increased response to the amount and length of time alcohol in the body, women are more susceptible to the long-term effects of alcohol.1 Alcohol is found in beer, wine, and liquor and affects every organ in the body upon consumption. Alcohol strongly affects the health of people.2


What is “one drink” of alcohol?


One drink of alcohol is:

12 ounces of beer

8 ounces of malt liquor

5 ounces of wine

1.5 ounces or a “shot” of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor


The type of alcohol consumed does not matter.  The important thing is how many “drinks” of alcohol are consumed.2


Does drinking alcohol increase my chances of getting breast cancer?


Yes. Large studies that reviewed many studies suggest that two drinks per day increases breast cancer risk.3,4,5,6 Other studies show that drinking three or more drinks per week is even associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.  Risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed on a regular basis.7,8  Scientists believe that alcohol may increase the risk for breast cancer by increasing the amount of some hormones in your blood that can cause breast cancer when at high levels.  Another reason may be that the glands in the breast become damaged and more susceptible to cancer.3 In addition to increasing the risk of developing breast cancer, drinking more alcohol is associated with more aggressive disease.9 It’s important to remember that not everyone who drinks alcohol gets cancer and not everyone who gets cancer drinks alcohol.


Does drinking alcohol increase my chances of cancer recurrence?


There is no conclusive evidence that shows that alcohol increases the risk of cancer recurrence.  One study showed that consuming three or more drinks per week might increase the risk of breast cancer coming back after remission.  This was especially true for women who have gone through menopause and for women who are overweight or obese.10 Drinking before being diagnosed with breast cancer has been shown to increase the chance for recurrence.9 Another study showed that light alcohol intake after diagnosis did not increase the risk for breast cancer recurrence.11 Discuss your health with your physician to determine if light alcohol consumption is safe for you.


Does drinking alcohol affect my survival after being diagnosed with breast cancer?


There is no strong evidence that shows that drinking alcohol would impact your survival.  One study showed that heavy drinking before diagnosis is associated with a small increase in death from breast cancer.9 Another study showed no difference in survival from breast cancer when women consumed three to four drinks per week11, and another study showed that light alcohol intake, regardless of body weight, did not increase the risk of dying from breast cancer.12 It’s important to discuss your concerns about alcohol with your physician.


What are some other health consequences of alcohol?


Alcohol is not only associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, but other cancers as well.  About 3.5% of cancer deaths worldwide are attributable to alcohol.  60% of the cancers women get from consuming alcohol are breast cancer.13 In addition to breast cancer, alcohol increases the risk of cancer in the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.  The more alcohol one consumes, the greater the risk of these cancers.  Alcohol can cause liver damage and disease, like cirrhosis.  The risk of liver disease from alcohol consumption is higher for women than for men.  Excessive drinking can cause your brain to shrink, can cause memory loss, and damage to heart muscle.  Women are more vulnerable to these problems than men.1


How much alcohol is safe?


There is no set amount of alcohol that has been determined to be safe.  There are many studies that have explored the risks and benefits of alcohol.  Discuss your health and family history with your physician to determine if alcohol is safe for you.


Jessica Burns

MD, MPH Candidate, 2014

The University of Arizona College of Medicine




1.      Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fact Sheets: Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Women’s Health, 2012.  http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/womens-health.htm.  Accessed July 21, 2012.

2.      Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frequently Asked Questions, 2012.  http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm.  Accessed July 21, 2012.

3.      Singletary KW, Gapstur SM. Alcohol and breast cancer: review of epidemiologic and experimental evidence and potential mechanisms. JAMA 2001;286(17):2143-51.

4.    Longnecker MP. Alcoholic beverage consumption in relation to risk of breast cancer: meta-analysis and review. Cancer Causes Control 1994;5:73–82.

5.    Smith-Warner SA, Spiegelman D, Yaun SS, et al. Alcohol and breast cancer in women: a pooled analysis of cohort studies. JAMA 1998;279:535–40.

6.      Key J, Hodgson S, Omar RZ, et al. Meta-analysis of studies of alcohol and breast cancer with consideration of the methodological issues. Cancer Causes Control 2006;17:759–70

7.      Allen NE, Beral V, Casabonne D, et al. Moderate alcohol intake and cancer incidence in women. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2009;101(5):296-305.

8.      Lew JQ, Freedman ND, Leitzmann MF, et al. Alcohol and risk of breast cancer by histologic type and hormone receptor status in postmenopausal women.  American Journal of Epidemiology 2009;170(3):308-317.

9.      Holm M, Olsen A, Christensen J, et al. Pre-diagnostic alcohol consumption and breast cancer recurrence and mortality: Results from a prospective cohort with a wide range of variation in alcohol intake.  International Journal of Cancer 2012; Epub doi 10.1002/ijc.27652.

10.  Kwan ML, Kushi LH, Weltzien E, et al. Alcohol consumption and breast cancer recurrence and survival among women with early-stage breast cancer: the life after cancer epidemiology study.  Journal of Clinical Oncology 2010;29(29):4410-6.

11.  Flatt SW, Thomson CA, Gold EB, et al. Low to moderate alcohol intake is not associated with increased mortality after breast cancer. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention 2010;19(3):681-8.

12.  Harris HR, Bergkvist L, Wolk A. Alcohol intake and mortality among women with invasive breast cancer. British Journal of Cancer 2012;106(3):592-5.

13.  Boffetta P, Hashibe M, La Vecchia C, Zatonski W, Rehm J. The burden of cancer attributable to alcohol drinking.  International Journal of Cancer 2006;119(4):884-7.