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Less Alcohol Is Good For Your Breast Health

   KEY FACTS:
  • Alcohol is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance).

  • 4% of new breast cancer cases in Canada each year may be linked to alcohol consumption.

  • It’s not the type of alcohol that increases the risk of breast cancer but how much you drink and how often.

  • 1 standard drink a day increases a woman’s relative risk of breast cancer by up to 13%. The higher the daily consumption of alcohol, the higher the risk for breast cancer.

  • Women with a higher risk of breast cancer are advised to avoid alcohol or drink it only occasionally.

  • For all women, drinking less alcohol is one way to take action to reduce the risk of breast cancer.

 

Many of us enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, cocktails with friends or a cold beer on a hot summer’s day. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, almost 8 out of 10 Canadians consume alcohol regularly.

What many people don’t realize is that alcohol is a carcinogenCarcinogen:
A substance that causes cancer or helps cancer to grow. Tobacco and alcohol (ethanol) are examples of carcinogens.
—a substance that causes cancer. This has been concluded by the International Agency of Research on Cancer (IARC), the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), and is supported by extensive research. The breast is one of the most sensitive parts of the body to the cancer-causing actions of alcohol. It’s not the type of alcohol that causes cancer, it’s the amount consumed and how frequently.

On this page, Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation provides you with information and guidelines about alcohol consumption in relation to breast cancer risk reduction.  

Alcohol and breast cancer risk

The WHO describes alcohol consumption as a leading risk factor for chronic disease, including cancer—and a greater risk than a high body mass indexBody Mass Index (BMI):
A measure of a person’s weight in relation to their height. This is one way of assessing body weight.
(BMI), a low intake of fruits and vegetables or being physically inactive.

There are a number of ways that alcohol may increase breast cancer risk. One of the main ways that alcohol may be involved in promoting the development of breast cancer is by increasing estrogenEstrogen:
a female sex hormone that is produced mainly in the ovaries. A woman’s levels of estrogen fluctuate throughout her life. Estrogen has been linked to the development of breast cancer and may promote the growth of cancer cells.
levels in the blood. Breast tissue is susceptible to the effects of estrogen, and estrogen has been linked to the development of breast cancer. Another way may occur when alcohol is broken down and produces substances that can damage DNADNA:
Short for Deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA is found in the cells of our bodies. It contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms and some viruses. Your DNA contains genetic information that is unique to you.
in cellsCell:
The basic structural and functional unit of all organisms.
, transforming these cells into cancer cells. Research is ongoing to better understand the role that alcohol plays in the development of breast cancer.

When it comes to cancer risk there is really no safe level of alcohol consumption, according to the World Cancer Research Fund. It is estimated that 4% of new breast cancer cases a year in Canada may be linked to alcohol consumption. Drinking less alcohol is one way we can take action to reduce our risk of breast cancer.

Women & Alcohol

In the 1990s, the alcohol industry identified women as an untapped market and began to promote female-friendly products, brands and advertising. From 2003 to 2010, rates of heavy drinking in women rose significantly.

Women are different from men in so many ways, including how their bodies handle alcohol. Women tend to have more body fat and lower average body weight than men, with less water content to dilute the alcohol consumed. They also have less of the enzymeEnzyme:
Proteins that are involved in carrying out the chemical reactions of the body.
that breaks alcohol down to eliminate it from the body.

What does this mean? That more of the alcohol consumed by a woman enters her bloodstream when she drinks than when a man drinks; so most women are more quickly affected by alcohol, and can become dependent on it faster than men.

Recognizing the way we live and the fact that many people do consume alcohol, research on alcohol and cancer risk has led to the development of consumption guidelines.    

Consumption guidelines

When it comes to alcohol, less is more definitely more – more focus, energy, better sleep, and overall health benefits, including the reduced risk of breast cancer. It’s not about prohibition. It’s about enjoying alcohol in healthier ways.

As a woman, consuming just one standard alcoholic drink every day leads to an increase in your relative riskRelative risk:
Describes how likely a person is to develop a disease when exposed to a specific factor, compared to someone who is not exposed to it.
of developing breast cancer by up to 13%. That risk goes up significantly the more alcohol per day you consume: 2 drinks a day can increase your risk by up to 27%; 3 or more drinks per day can increase your risk by 40-50% or higher.

Some smokers, including social smokers, like to smoke when they drink. If that is the case for you, be aware that these two things together further increase your risk of developing breast cancer as well as cancers of the mouth and throat, esophagus, liver and colon.

Knowing what a standard drink is and keeping track of how much alcohol you consume—daily and weekly—will help you reduce your risk of breast cancer and other health conditions.

A “standard drink” is: 

  • Wine (12%) 5 oz (142 ml) glass

  • Beer (5%) 12 oz (341 ml) bottle/glass

  • Hard liquor (40%) 1.5 oz (43 ml) glass

A standard drink contains 13.6 grams or 17 ml of alcohol. Remember that many drinks, such as “coolers” and some beers, have a higher alcohol content than the standard drink.

Cutting Back or Quitting

If you wish to assess your drinking or reduce your alcohol consumption, there are support services and programs to help you. Cutting back or quitting drinking alcohol can be a big decision and you don’t have to do it alone. There are a number of resources, online and in your community, that can help you with your decision.

Check out the following resources for help you quit or cut back:

eMentalHealth.ca A Canadian resource that provides information and support to help you to assess your drinking patterns and tips to help you quit or cut back.

CAMH Alcohol Help Centre  This anonymous online program from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health gives you access to personalized exercises, tools and information that will help you assess your drinking patterns and prepare to cut back or quit drinking.

Drug and Alcohol Helpline  This referral service provides information about drug and alcohol addiction services in Ontario. The service is free, anonymous, and funded by the Government of Ontario.

Red wine: health risks outweigh minor benefits for heart health

You have probably heard news reports that drinking a glass of red wine every day can keep your heart healthy. However, studies show that most women under 50, with no signs of cardiovascular conditions, are not likely to benefit from the possible, slight, positive effect that drinking red wine or other alcoholic beverages might have on their heart.

A 2012 study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) concluded that cardiovascular benefits cannot be assumed for all drinkers, and found that the degree of protection varies by gender, drinking pattern, and other individual factors. It also confirmed that even at low levels of consumption, alcohol increases the risk of other diseases, including several cancers. In the case of breast cancer, just one alcoholic drink a day increases a woman’s risk of developing the disease.

Your heart health, breast health and overall health are better served by a balanced diet, regular physical activity and by quitting smoking —or, even better, never starting.

 

Sources:

Aronson, K. (2003). Alcohol: A recently identified risk factor for breast cancer. Canadian Medical Association Journal. Apr 29, 2003; 168 (9).

Butt, P., Beirness, D., Gliksman, L., Paradis, C., & Stockwell, T. (2011). Alcohol and health in Canada: A summary of evidence and guidelines for low risk drinking. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

Canadian Centre for Addiction & Mental Health. Evaluate your drinking. Accessed June 17, 2014

Canadian Partnership against Cancer. (March 2011). Alcohol use and cancer in Canada. Accessed June 17, 2014

CNW Newswire. (2012). Alcohol and your heart: friend or foe? Accessed June 17, 2014

Dowsett Johnson, A. (2012). Women & Alcohol: To your health? Canadian Women’s Health Network.

Health Canada. (2011). Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey. Summary of Results. Accessed June 17, 2014

International Agency for Research on Cancer. (March 2007). Breast and colorectal cancers are associated with alcohol consumption, says IARC. Accessed June 17, 2014

Horn-Ross, PL et al. (2012). Alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk among postmenopausal women following cessation of hormone therapy use: the California Teachers Study. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, 21 (11), 1-8

Monaghan, K. (2012). How I quit drinking, kriscarr.com, guest blog posting August 23, 2012.

Nguyen, L. (2012). No conclusive proof red wine good for the heart: Study. Postmedia News on canada.com, January 30, 2012. Accessed Feb 2, 2012. Article no longer available online.

Roerecke, M., & Rehm, J. (2012). The cardioprotective association of average alcohol consumption and ischaemic heart disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Addiction, 107 (7), 1246-1260.

Seitz, H. K et al. (2012). Epidemiology and Pathophysiology of Alcohol and Breast Cancer: Update 2012. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 47 (3), 204-212.

World Health Organization. Alcohol. Accessed June 17, 2014