Flavour of the Week

Alcohol and Breast Cancer Risk

“High booze intake linked to breast cancer, girls warned”

flavour-of-the-week-logoThis was one of the headlines in Friday’s Globe and Mail. The article goes on to advise adolescent/young women to avoid or limit alcohol intake if they have a family history of breast cancer. The study this report is based on followed ~ 9,000 girls (United States) between the ages of 9 and 15 at the start of the study and measured the incidence of benign breast disease (lumps, pain and lesions), a known risk factor for breast cancer, when the same participants were 18 – 27 years old.

The authors report consuming 1.5 alcoholic drinks/day increased the risk of benign breast disease in young women; those that drank most frequently (6 or 7 days per week) were at an even higher risk compared with those that drank < 1 day per week (1). These results held even when adjusted for confounders. This is not the first time alcohol has been associated with cancer development: when ethanol is metabolized by the body it produces acetaldehyde, which is carcinogenic (2).

High alcohol consumption has also been linked to lung, gastric, colorectal, pancreatic, prostate, liver and oral cancers (3). Of course there are many other diet and lifestyle factors that can increase or decrease your risk of developing cancer and things you can do to decrease your risk!

With respect to breast cancer, an increased risk with even moderate alcohol consumption has been reported in several studies (4-6). However, a recent meta-analysis in Chinese women found that alcohol consumption reduced the risk of breast cancer (3). This suggests that ethnicity, lifestyle, genetics, and family history all play a role; alcohol cannot be considered the only risk factor for breast cancer. That being said, the advice for young females with a family history of breast cancer to avoid or limit alcohol intake is prudent. According to Dr. Colditz, the lead investigator on the study, the young age of these females may be a factor as the breast cells are dividing and growing during this stage of development, making them especially vulnerable. He also points out that binge drinking is common in the teen years and early adulthood, and may be a factor in the increased risk.

There are several dietary recommendations you can follow to reduce your risk of cancer. With respect to alcohol you should stay within the *current* weekly limits in the absence of the aforementioned family and personal medical history. Note: these are NOT intake goals you should strive to meet but rather limits you should not exceed!

  • Females: 2 drinks per day; 9 drinks per week @ 13.6 g/alcohol per drink (Canada)
  • Males: 2 drinks per day; 14 drinks per week @ 13.6 g/alcohol per drink (Canada)

Click here for international guidelines (note how large the standard Canadian drink is!)

Other protective factors include consuming a minimum of 5 servings of fruits and vegetables and eating the recommended fibre intake of 25 g/d for females and 38g/d for males. It is also beneficial to avoid or limit processed meats (look for nitrates or sulphites on the package) and excessive sodium consumption. It is also advisable to meet the minimum physical activity recommendations of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week and maintain a healthy body weight.


  1. Berkey et al. (2010) Prospective study of adolescent alcohol consumption and risk of benign breast disease in young women. Pediatrics. 125(5): e1081-e1087
  2. Salaspuro, MP. (2003) Alcohol consumption and cancer of the gastrointestinal tract. Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol. 17(4):679-94.
  3. Li, Y., Yang, H., Cao, J. (2011) Association between alcohol consumption and cancers in the Chinese population – A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS one. 6(4): e18776.
  4. Bagnardi V, Blangiardo M, La Vecchia C, Corrao G (2001) A meta-analysis of alcohol drinking and cancer risk. Br J Cancer 85(11): 1700–5.
  5. Smith-Warner SA, Spiegelman D, Yaun SS, van den Brandt PA, Folsom AR, et al. (1998) Alcohol and breast cancer in women: a pooled analysis of cohort studies. JAMA 18; 279(7): 535–40.
  6.  Key J, Hodgson S, Omar RZ, Jensen TK, Thompson SG, et al. (2006) Metaanalysis of studies of alcohol and breast cancer with consideration of the methodological issues. Cancer Causes Control 17(6): 759–70.

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