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Can over drinking raise breast cancer risk?

Updated on January 23, 2008

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, which occurs when abnormal cells grow out of control in one or both breasts. It occurs in one out of nine women. But if detected early, up to 90 percent of the breast cancer patient can be cured. However, it often is fatal. There are many risk factors that can cause breast cancer. These factors include heredity (sister or mother with the disease), diet, smoking, aging and alcohol consumption. In this article we will discussion on whether overdrinking can raise breast cancer risk.

Amount of drinks raises breast cancer risk

There is a positive relationship between number of drinks and risk, e.g. the more a woman drinks, the more she increases her risk of developing breast cancer. Research result reported at the European Cancer Conference in Spain 2007 showed that women who drank three or more alcoholic beverages a day increased their risk of breast cancer by 30 percent. Women who drank one or two a day increased their risk by 10 percent. The relationship between alcohol consumption and breast cancer has been studied for more than 10 years. In 2003, University of California-San Francisco researchers found that among Marin County women, alcohol consumption was one of the biggest differences between those who developed breast cancer and those who did not.

The results of the same research also fund that it made no difference what type of alcoholic drink the women had. If a woman consumes alcohol of any kind, including beer, hard liquor, and red and white wine, cancer risk is increased. It was the fact they contained ethyl alcohol that mattered, and how much was consumed. Alcohol is a carcinogen or cancer causing chemical. The only thing that affected the risk was the amount of alcohol. Drinking wine, beer or spirits makes no difference in the increasing of breast cancer risk, the researchers reported. Even red wine and white wine are the same in the way they cause breast cancer.

A group of researchers led by researchers from cancer research UK, in Oxford, UK found that single daily drink of 1 oz of spirits such as whiskey, gin, or vodka, or 3 oz of wine increases a woman's breast cancer risk slightly, 3% to 4%. But after that, every additional daily drink increases the risk by 7%. By four drinks a day, a woman's risk goes to 30%.

The effect of alcohol was there regardless of a woman's race, education, family history, use of hormone replacement therapy, or other risk factors. No matter what a woman's baseline risk, it went up 7% with each drink.

The actual mechanism is not yet very clear but theoretically, alcohol changes women's estrogen metabolism, so that heavy drinkers have more estrogen in their bodies. Breast cancers are sensitive to this hormone and can feed on it.

In a research during a three 8-week periods, each participant consumed 15 or 30 grams of alcohol (the equivalent of one or two drinks) per day, or an alcohol-free drink. At the end of each 8-week period, the researchers measured levels of sex hormones, including estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone, in the women's blood. It was found that women who consumed 15 grams of alcohol per day showed a 7.5% increase in a breakdown product of estrogen called estrone sulfate, compared to women not drinking alcohol. Women who consumed 30 grams of alcohol per day showed an even greater increase (10.7%), compared to women not drinking alcohol.

Smoking can worsen the effect of alcohol

Women who drink and smoke expose themselves to a higher incidence of breast cancer because tobacco is also a carcinogen. Women who smoke are also at higher risk for other types of cancer such as liver, mouth, esophagus and colon.

The increase in breast cancer risk due to three or more alcoholic drinks a day is similar to that posed by smoking a pack of cigarettes or more a day and it is also similar to the risk posed by taking oestrogenic hormones.

From above discussion, we can see that over drinking indeed can raise breast cancer risk. Therefore, for women who are drinking, it's better to cut down or quit drinking altogether to minimize the possibility to develop breast cancer. Although there is some evidence that light drinking may be beneficial to heart health, that benefit can be replaced by other remedies. For those who don't drink at all, it's better just not to start drinking.


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