Ask an Expert: Alcohol and breast cancer risk

Q: I enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner each night and thought it was good for my health.  Now I hear having a glass of wine each day can increase your risk of developing breast cancer.  Is that true?

Answer from the expert staff of the Ruth J. Spear Breast Center at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center: Yes, research has shown that even moderate amounts of alcohol, consumed on a regular basis, could increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. Recent studies have found that drinking one glass of beer, wine or liquor per day could increase a woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer anywhere from 7 to 11 percent. The link between alcohol and breast cancer appears to be even more pronounced in women who:

  • Have a blood relative with a history of breast cancer;
  • Have completed menopause; or
  • Drink more than one glass of alcohol per day.

We still do not know exactly how alcohol affects breast cancer risk. Some think alcohol has a direct effect on hormones in the body, while others believe stress and other lifestyle factors associated with regular drinking actually cause the cancer. More research is needed to better understand how alcohol consumption affects breast cancer risk.

While an occasional glass of alcohol is unlikely to pose a problem for most women, you may wish to avoid daily alcohol consumption if any of the above risk factors apply to you. You might also consider your social drinking patterns; one recent research study found that women who regularly consume more than two drinks on a single occasion (e.g., at a party or happy hour) may be at greater risk of developing breast cancer than those who drink less on each occasion.

If you are at risk for cardiovascular disease, your health provider can talk with you about the heart-healthy benefits of moderate daily alcohol consumption and help you weigh those benefits against the potential increased risk of breast cancer.

December 2003

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