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Breast Cancer and Alcohol: Why and How to Make a Toast

By Dr. Marisa Weiss on December 2nd, 2010 Categories: Uncategorized

With the holiday party season coming up, it’s worth thinking about what’s in your glass when you’re celebrating. A glass of wine can bring out the flavor of many foods, and it can be hard to resist a champagne toast at midnight on New Year’s Eve. But alcohol can increase the risk of breast cancer, especially in teen and tween girls whose breasts are developing (another reason to encourage the teenage girls in our lives to avoid alcohol). And other research has shown that having a few drinks a week may increase the risk of breast cancer recurrence — breast cancer coming back. The more you drink, the bigger the increase in risk.

At least 4% of breast cancers in women in developed countries are likely due to drinking alcohol. In countries where more women drink alcohol (and drink more when they do), such as France, it’s likely that more breast cancers can be linked to alcohol. In France it’s estimated that at least 9% of breast cancers are linked to drinking alcohol.

How much does alcohol increase breast cancer risk? There’s a 10% increase in risk for each 10 grams of alcohol  per day (a glass of wine is about 11 grams). So as little as 1 drink per day can increase risk slightly. Women who have 3 to 4 drinks per day have nearly a 50% increase in breast cancer risk. It’s not clear if this risk goes back down if you limit how much you drink or quit drinking entirely.

Alcohol may increase risk the risk of the cancer coming back (recurrence). Just 3 or 4 drinks per week after a breast cancer diagnosis can increase the risk of recurrence. This link seems to be strongest in postmenopausal and overweight women.

Alcohol’s effects may vary by type of breast cancer. Drinking alcohol seems to affect the risk of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers more than the risk of hormone-receptor-negative breast cancers. Estrogen can cause hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer to grow, and alcohol can increase estrogen levels in a woman’s body. This estrogen increase may be why there’s a link between drinking alcohol and breast cancer.

Teens and tweens need to stay dry. Girls who drink often and heavily have a much greater risk of developing benign breast disease in their 20s (benign breast disease is a risk factor for breast cancer).

Make your toasts healthy. If you want to limit or avoid alcohol, there are many delicious choices. Mocktails — drinks that use all the ingredients of cocktails except for the alcohol — are available just about everywhere. Virgin Marys offer the healthy tomato juice of Bloody Marys without the vodka. Cosmo-Nots keep the healthy cranberry juice without the booze. Many online recipe sites have tips for making non-alcoholic drinks. The makers of non-alcoholic beer, wine, and champagne have improved the taste of their products and these, too, are widely available.

Here are some ways to make your holiday beverages festive:

  • Freeze your favorite juice in ice tray and use as ice cubes. This looks especially nice in a pint glass of club soda or sparkling water.
  • Get creative and make a dramatic mocktail using edible flowers preserved in syrup — you can eat the flower afterward.
  • Put fresh organic raspberries or strawberries in the bottom of a champagne flute and top with sparkling water or ginger ale.
  • Put chunks of fresh fruit on a drink stirrer and put into a glass of your favorite non-alcoholic beverage.
  • Use a candy cane or other stick candy as a swizzle stick.
  • Rim your glass with colored sugar for sparkling pizzazz.

If you, like me, choose to enjoy the occasional drink, try to stick to 2 or fewer alcoholic drinks per week. On special occasions, I give myself a little more wiggle room.

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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