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Drinking Alcohol Raises Breast Cancer Risk

a large variety of colorful cocktailsEvidence is growing that women's risk for breast cancer, especially diagnosed after menopause, increases with greater alcohol consumption. For National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, AICR experts are highlighting alcohol's link to breast cancer.

“The evidence from our 2007 expert report and its subsequent Continuous Update Project is clear,” says AICR registered dietitian Alice Bender, “When it comes to breast cancer, any level of alcohol consumption raises risk.”

AICR's expert report and Continuous Update Project have found for each standard drink a day, postmenopausal breast cancer risk appears to increase by 11 percent. Standard drink sizes include a 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5-2 ounce shot of spirits (depending on the amount of alcohol in the liquor). AICR advises women who are at high risk for breast cancer to consider not drinking any alcohol at all.

Breast cancer isn't the only type of cancer to which drinking alcohol is linked. AICR's expert report, Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective and Continuous Update Project found strong evidence that alcoholic beverages increase risk of developing the following cancers:

  • mouth
  • pharynx
  • larynx
  • esophagus
  • pre- and post-menopausal breast
  • colorectal
  • liver

Your risk of lung cancer also rises dramatically if you drink alcohol and smoke.

It's the amount of alcohol you drink that counts, not the type. Recent study results also suggest that, for women, it's the total amount of alcohol consumed throughout a woman's lifetime that may influence breast cancer risk.

Even small amounts pose some cancer risk, so AICR recommends not drinking alcohol at all. However, if you do drink alcohol, limit your intake to no more than two standard-sized drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. All standard drinks have about the same dose of alcohol: about one-half ounce of pure alcohol. But some servings of alcoholic beverages contain more or less alcohol than a standard drink.

How does drinking alcohol increase cancer risk?

  • Tissues in the body, such as the mouth and esophagus, can be damaged by direct exposure to alcohol, possibly leading to cancer.
  • Years of heavy drinking can lead to liver damage that may eventually lead to liver cancer.
  • Scientists are continuing to find evidence on how drinking alcohol leads to breast and colorectal cancers.
  • Drinking too much alcohol can reduce amounts of folate (a B vitamin) we absorb from healthy foods to maintain healthy DNA in our genes.
  • Alcoholic drinks are high in calories and can contribute to weight gain, another cancer risk factor.

Even though it seems like "everybody" goes to happy hour, or you enjoy being a wine connoisseur, putting your health first and remembering alcohol's link to increased cancer risk can help you avoid developing cancer later. And any reduction in alcohol consumption can help.

Ways to Cut Back on Alcohol

  • Aim to keep some days each week alcohol-free.
  • Opt for the smallest serving size; dilute drinks with water, ice and/or club soda as much as possible.
  • Sip slowly and avoid pressure from others to drink faster.
  • Alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks like club soda or low-sodium tomato or vegetable juice with lemon and a couple drops of hot sauce.
  • Stock your refrigerator with plenty of alternative beverages like sparkling or spring water flavored with citrus slices and seltzers.
  • Buy low- or no-alcohol beer or wine.
  • For celebrations, sparkling apple juice or club soda mixed with 100% cranberry juice are both refreshing and suitable.
  • Keep track of how much you’re drinking and avoid topping off one drink with more alcohol.
  • Be aware that restaurants often serve larger-than-standard drinks.

Published on September 5, 2014

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