Does alcohol consumption increase the risk of breast cancer?

Breast cancer is second only to lung cancer in yearly cancer-deaths for women in the U.S. The American Cancer Society estimates that 40,000 women from the U.S. alone will die from it this year – and many studies show that even limited alcohol consumption can increase the risk.

Breast cancer is second only to lung cancer in yearly cancer-deaths for women in the U.S. However, new cases of breast cancer each year double those of lung cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that the U.S. will see 232,670 new cases of breast cancer in 2014, and that 40,000 women will die from it.

While many causes of breast cancer are, unfortunately, often unavoidable (such as carcinogens in the food we eat, the air we breathe, the hygiene products we use) there is one known carcinogen that women can easily avoid – or minimise – to lower their risk of developing breast cancer.

Ethanol, which is present in all types of alcoholic beverages, has been listed as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) for many years. It has been linked to increased risk of several cancers – including breast cancer.

Having a family history of breast cancer is the leading risk factor for women, but studies show that even a low or moderate alcohol consumption will increase that risk. In a study done by the Mayo Clinic, it was found that women who had close relatives with breast cancer and were daily drinkers, doubled their risk of developing the cancer compared to non-drinkers.

How alcohol increases cancer risk

It is not completely clear to researchers how alcohol increases the risk for cancer, but there are some widely accepted reasons as follows:
• The breakdown of ethanol into acetaldehyde which is a toxic chemical that can cause damage to DNA and proteins in the body.
• Consumption generates reactive oxygen species which can harm DNA, proteins and lipids through oxidation.
• Weakening of the body’s ability to absorb enough nutrients in which a lack-of have been linked to cancer, such as: folate, vitamin C and vitamin E amongst others.
• Alcohol consumption raises the levels of estrogen in the blood which has been linked to increases in breast cancer risk.
• During fermentation and production, alcoholic beverages may acquire outside carcinogens such as nitrosamines, asbestos fibres, phenols and hydrocarbons.

How to lower your breast cancer risk

According to Professor Paul Wallace, Drinkaware’s Chief Medical Advisor, alcohol’s contribution to the overall risk of breast cancer in women is about 4%. However, he maintains that women everywhere should be made more aware of the risks associated with drinking – especially when breast cancer runs in the family. He also recommends that to keep the risk factors associated with drinking alcohol as low as possible, women should keep their drinking habits within the low-risk guidelines.

If you or someone you know is regularly drinking more than what is recommended in the lower-risk guidelines, alcohol consumption could be harming your/their health. Talk to a professional if you think there may be a problem.

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