Research consistently shows that drinking alcoholic beverages -- beer, wine, and liquor -- increases a woman's risk of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Alcohol can increase levels of estrogen and other hormones associated with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Alcohol also may increase breast cancer risk by damaging DNA in cells.
Compared to women who don't drink at all, women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer. Experts estimate that the risk of breast cancer goes up another 10% for each additional drink women regularly have each day. Teen and tween girls ages 9 to 15 who drink three to five drinks a week have 3 times the risk of developing benign breast lumps. (Certain categories of non-cancerous breast lumps are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer later in life.)
To bring attention to the links between alcohol and cancer, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has released a position paper on alcohol and cancer. This is the first time ASCO has taken a position on alcohol and cancer risk.
The position paper was published online by the Journal of Clinical Oncology on Nov. 7, 2017. Read “Alcohol and Cancer: A Statement of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.”
ASCO is a national organization of oncologists and other cancer care providers. ASCO position papers give doctors and patients recommendations on specific topics that are supported by much credible research and experience.
In the paper, the ASCO experts estimate that 3.5% of all cancer deaths in the United States can be attributed to drinking alcohol. The paper also cites evidence that even light drinking -- less than one drink per day -- increases cancer risk. Heavy, long-term drinking increases cancer risk the most.
Among women, light drinkers have a 4% increase in breast cancer risk. Moderate drinkers have a 23% percent increase in risk. Heavy drinkers who consume more than eight drinks per day have a 63% increase in risk. “The message is not, ‘Don’t drink.’ It’s, ‘If you want to reduce your cancer risk, drink less. And if you don’t drink, don’t start,’” said Noelle LoConte, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the lead author of the ASCO statement. “It’s different than tobacco where we say, ‘Never smoke. Don’t start.’ This is a little more subtle.”
“Alcohol consumption is one of the most difficult dietary factors to accurately ascertain,” said Breastcancer.org Professional Advisory Board member Anne McTiernan, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Cancer Prevention Center at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, who has done research on alcohol and breast cancer risk. “Most people don’t know how much they’ve drunk (in terms of ounces), or how much alcohol is in what they drink. And most don’t accurately recall how often they drink.”
The position paper also says that both doctors and the general public aren’t aware of the link between drinking alcohol and cancer risk.
"People typically don't associate drinking beer, wine, and hard liquor with increasing their risk of developing cancer in their lifetimes," said ASCO President Bruce Johnson, M.D. "However, the link between increased alcohol consumption and cancer has been firmly established."
The position paper offers policy recommendations to reduce excessive drinking, including:
- Provide alcohol screening and brief interventions during doctor’s visits.
- Regulate how many stores selling alcohol can be in a specific area.
- Increase alcohol taxes and prices.
- Maintain limits on the days and hours alcohol can be sold.
- Enhance enforcement of laws that prohibit selling alcohol to minors.
- Limit the advertising of alcoholic beverages to people under age 21.
- Add alcohol control strategies to comprehensive cancer treatment plans.
- Support efforts to eliminate "pinkwashing" to market alcoholic beverages. In other words, discouraging alcoholic beverage companies from exploiting the color pink or pink ribbons to show a commitment to finding a cure for breast cancer given the evidence that alcohol consumption is linked to an increased risk for breast cancer.
Every woman wants to know what she can do to lower her risk of breast cancer. Some of the factors associated with breast cancer -- being a woman, your age, and your genetics, for example -- can’t be changed. Other factors -- being overweight, lack of exercise, drinking alcohol -- can be changed by making choices. By choosing the healthiest lifestyle options possible, you can empower yourself and make sure your breast cancer risk is as low as possible.
Because many studies suggest that drinking any amount of alcohol regularly increases breast cancer risk, if you want to do everything you can to lower your risk of breast cancer (or breast cancer coming back), severely limiting or avoiding alcohol makes sense.
To learn more about how you can keep your risk of breast cancer as low as it can be, visit the Breastcancer.org Lower Your Risk section.