Sunday, November 27, 2011

Alcohol and Breast Cancer: November News and Research

This month, there's been a lot of buzz (forgive the pun) about alcohol use and breast cancer. As the holidays approach, we thought it might be a good time to share the latest news and research. Links may be found on the alcoholic beverages page of our website.

The JAMA study: Even moderate drinking increases risk

The big story this month was a November 1 JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) study which followed over 100,000 nurses for almost 30 years. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Reuters covered the study.

According to the study, "Low levels of alcohol consumption were associated with a small increase in breast cancer risk." Greater consumption was associated with greater risk. The "most consistent measure" of risk was "cumulative alcohol intake throughout adult life."

The media attempted to sort out the details and put the findings in perspective.

All sources reported that moderate consumption (three to six drinks a week) was associated with a 15% increased risk. For women with a lifetime risk of 12%, three to six drinks a week would correlate with a 13.8% risk.

According to Reuters, the 10-year risk would be 2.8% for abstainers, 3.3% for three to six drinks a week and 3.5% for up to 13 drinks a week.

The Los Angeles Times further explained that women who consumed at least two drinks a day were 51% more likely to develop breast cancer than those who did not drink at all. Binge drinking (six or more drinks in one sitting) increased risk regardless of total consumption. Alcohol use between the ages of 18 and 40 was associated with increased risk, regardless of alcohol use after 40.

The New York Times highlighted some of the study limitations. First, the increase in risk associated with three to six drinks a week was "modest", and "for many women may not be enough to outweigh the heart-healthy benefits of drinking in moderation." Plus, "the new study was observational and lacked a control group, and it drew from self-reports, which can be unreliable."

The Los Angeles Times revisited the study and the balance between breast cancer risk and heart disease in a November 21 piece, "Women, the occasional drink, breast cancer and heart disease." In balancing the risks and benefits of drinking, the story was careful to note that any benefits associated with alcohol consumption relate to moderate, not heavy drinking.

The CANCER study: Alcohol and girls with a family history

Adults aren't the only ones who drink alcohol. How does adolescent alcohol consumption affect breast cancer risk?

A November 14 study in the journal Cancer examined the risk of benign breast disease, a "well-documented" breast cancer risk factor, among young women. A EurekAlert! press release covered the details.

The participants, aged 9 to 15 at the start of the study in 1996, completed periodic questionnaires until 2007 about family history of breast cancer and benign breast disease, alcohol use, height and weight.

The study found that young women with a family history of breast cancer or maternal history of benign breast disease had an increased risk of developing benign breast disease. Consuming seven alcoholic drinks a week doubled that already increased risk. The authors concluded, "Adolescents with family history may reduce their risk by avoiding alcohol."

Interestingly, among girls with no family history, the risk of benign breast disease was associated with other factors, such as weight, waist size and adult height. The authors note that this may possibly reflect different causes of breast cancer.

Alcoholics more likely to die of cancer

The JAMA study above addressed moderate alcohol use. On the other extreme, a November 15 US News and World Report/HealthDay story covered an Italian study of 2,300 alcoholics in Florence.

Compared to the general population, alcoholics were more likely to die from oral cancers, liver cancer, pancreatic cancer and breast cancer. They were also more likely to die from infections, diabetes, other diseases and violent crimes. Female alcoholics had higher survival rates than males, "possibly because women are more likely to get help for alcoholism."

The study author noted that the increased risk of death may be due to the effects of alcohol on human organs and lifestyle factors such as smoking, drug abuse, promiscuity and poor diet.

At, we follow breast cancer news and research daily. New studies and media stories are added to our website and database, sorted by topic. Topics include imaging, diagnostic testing, chemotherapy, radiation, targeted drugs, surgeries, complementary therapies and lifestyle options, such as alcohol use. We highlight the latest developments in this blog. However, topics may be explored on our website anytime. Simply click the Treatments tab to get started.

Our goal is to make internet research easy. Please stay tuned!

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