Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women worldwide, as well as in the United States (except for non-melanoma skin cancer). On the occasion of Cancer Prevention month, I want to highlight the growing amount of evidence generated by AICR’s Continuous Update Project on breast cancer and how important it is to understand how lifestyle choices – like drinking alcohol and being physically active – affect risk for this cancer.
It’s the amount you drink that matters, not the type of alcohol. AICR advises for cancer prevention, it is best not to drink alcohol.
AICR research estimates that one of every three breast cancer cases occurring annually in the US could be prevented by limiting alcohol intake, increasing activity and being a healthy weight. The most updated report on breast cancer finds that consumption of alcoholic drinks increases risk of both pre and postmenopausal breast cancer.
I presented this report on behalf of World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research CUP Panel at The Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program (BCERP) annual meeting recently. My poster presentation outlined the results of the Continuous Update Project (CUP), specifically regarding breast cancer and alcohol consumption.
A main theme of the meeting was “Windows of Susceptibility,” which highlighted key times of growth throughout a woman’s life span that may influence and impact her risk for breast cancer. These critical “windows of susceptibility” include pre-conception, the post-natal period, puberty, menarche, pregnancy, transition to menopause, and menopause. At each of these stages of development, our environment and lifestyle choices play a central role in the initiation, promotion, or progression of cancer. Speakers at the meeting focused on how toxic environmental factors (including endocrine disruption, lifestyle factors, and other environmental exposures) can increase breast cancer risk during these susceptible periods.
Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Director of the NIEHS (The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences), emphasized that disease occurrence is always the result of the interaction between genes and environment and is always context-dependent (depends upon each situation and its associated factors). In addition, early exposures may have late and long-standing effects, elaborating that “what happens early in life impacts the rest your life.” Other speakers echoed the sentiment that “a bad start can last a lifetime.” This further emphasizes the need for cancer prevention steps to being as early as possible, and the fact that it is never too late to start.
For alcohol, recent study results suggest that, for women, it’s the total amount of alcohol consumed throughout a lifetime that may influence breast cancer risk. It’s the amount you drink that matters, not the type of alcohol. AICR advises for cancer prevention, it is best not to drink alcohol.
AICR’s expert report and Continuous Update Project have found for each standard drink a day, postmenopausal breast cancer risk increases by about 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).
Experts at the meeting also talked about the importance of physical activity between the ages of 5-19 years and its association with decreased risk for breast cancer. The teen years are a critical age, as other studies have shown that breast tissue is highly vulnerable to exposures between menarche and first pregnancy.
Research also shows that breast cancer risk increases with age, with 75% of cases developing in the age group above 50 years age, and decreases after 80 years of age. The greatest increase in rates of breast cancer is during the perimenopausal and early menopausal periods.
To help you get started with other daily actions that can help reduce risk for breast and other cancers, download AICR’s free 30-day cancer prevention checklist.