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Alcohol and Cancer: You Can’t Drink to Your Health

By Dr. Marisa Weiss on November 9th, 2011 Categories: Uncategorized

A column by Melinda Beck in the November 1, 2011 Wall Street Journal gets right to the point: Regular drinking, even just two drinks a day, raises the risk of many types of cancer, including breast cancer.

The statistics she cites are sobering:

  • Men who drink three or more drinks a day have a 41% higher risk of dying of cancer.
  • Women who drink two or more drinks a day have a 20% higher risk of dying of cancer.
  • Women who have three drinks a week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer.
  • Teen and tween girls aged 9 to 15 who drink three to five drinks a week have three 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.)
  • Experts estimate that the risk of breast cancer goes up another 10% for each additional drink women regularly have each day.

These numbers are from a study published in the November 2011 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology that looked at more than 320,000 people who responded to government surveys, so the evidence is compelling. Another large study (published in the November 2, 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association) that looked at more than 105,000 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study reached the same conclusion: regular drinking — even as little as two or three drinks a week — raises breast cancer risk. Of note: these are not studies of women who’ve had breast cancer — most of the women in these studies didn’t have breast cancer.

The studies show that not everyone who drinks regularly gets cancer and not everyone who gets cancer drinks — only 3.5% of deaths from cancer worldwide are because of alcohol. BUT — and this is a big but — experts estimate that 90% of those deaths in men could be avoided if they limited themselves to only two drinks a day and 50% of the deaths in women could be avoided if they had only one drink a day.

We also know that a drink now and then helps lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. But the key here is drinking in MODERATION. This doesn’t mean a drink every day or a drink every other day. It means just what it says — a drink now and then.

So how does all this affect you?

The bottom line is that regularly drinking alcohol can harm the health of both men and women, even if you don’t binge drink or get drunk. All types of alcohol count. One drink is equal to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. If you want to do everything you can to lower your risk of breast cancer, try to have no more than two drinks a week. And if you want to help your family lower their risk of several cancers, ask them to do the same.

This appears to be true whether you want to lower your risk of a first-time breast cancer or lower your risk of a recurrence. A 2009 study found that drinking even a few alcoholic beverages per week increased the risk of recurrence in women who’d been diagnosed with early-stage disease.

This reality check about alcohol limitation is a real bummer for me and for many of you. I love wine and great cocktail (a mojito is my favorite). Since my diagnosis, I’ve pretty much eliminated alcohol from my life. It’s hard. It’s very hard, especially if you’re the only one making changes. Going to a party is not as much fun and you can feel left out when everyone else is partying it up and acting very happy. But if your whole family makes the change, it’s a little easier. You can support each other when you’re out to dinner or at a party with friends. Also, limited alcohol pays off in many other ways. By drinking less, you’re reducing the calories from the alcohol and all the extra rich foods you tend to wolf down starting halfway through the first glass of wine. Plus, you tend to think, speak (including not saying something you’ll regret later), move, sleep, drive and multitask much better without the influence of alcohol.

For most of us, drinking is social. But cutting back on alcohol doesn’t mean cutting back on seeing your friends and family. If you’re not sure if you can go to an event and not have a drink, keep your health in mind. Remember that you’re keeping your risk of breast and other cancers as low as possible.

You can also try my trick. I like to hold a glass at parties (it gives me something to do with my hands and keeps them away from all the sugary treats), plus it makes me feel like one of the gang because just about everyone else has a glass. I’ve found that asking for club soda or seltzer and a splash of cranberry juice with a wedge of lime is a foolproof drink. Just about everyone has it, it’s refreshing, and it keeps me hydrated. And the bubbles and cranberry juice make it more festive than plain water. A Virgin Mary — that is, just Bloody Mary Mix without the vodka — is another good solution (plus tomato juice is food for you). For more ideas, visit the TPLG column Breast Cancer and Alcohol: Why and How to Make a Toast.

Are you cutting back on alcohol? Do you have a plan for when you go out? Let us know.

Dr. Marisa Weiss

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president and guiding force behind Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 8 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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