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Light Drinking Over Time May Raise Breast Cancer Risk

Routinely Drinking as Little as Three Drinks a Week Can Raise Breast Cancer Risk, Study Finds
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

woman holding martini

Nov. 1, 2011 -- Some studies have linked drinking alcohol to an increased risk for breast cancer, and now new research suggests that even moderate to light alcohol intake may raise a woman’s risk.

Consistently drinking as little as three alcoholic beverages a week was associated with a small -- 15% -- increase in breast cancer risk in the study.

Drinking at least two glasses of wine or beer a day or two cocktails a day -- was associated with about a 50% increase in risk.

The study, which appears in the Nov. 3 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, ultimately found cumulative lifetime alcohol exposure to be an important predictor of breast cancer risk.

Binge Drinking and Breast Cancer

The study included nearly 106,000 nurses enrolled in one of the largest, longest, and most comprehensive women’s health studies ever conducted in the U.S.

Between 1980 and 2008, the women were surveyed about their drinking habits eight separate times, allowing the researchers to evaluate the role of drinking patterns on breast cancer risk.

The women were between the ages of 34 and 59 when first asked about their alcohol intake in 1980. The women were asked about alcohol intake during early adulthood -- ages 18 to 22, 25 to 30, and 35 to 40.

Binge drinking was associated with an increase in breast cancer risk, as was cumulative alcohol intake over time.

But frequency of drinking -- how often women drank during the week and when -- did not appear to influence risk. The key component was how much you consistently drank over time.

"There is both good and bad news for women in our findings," researcher Wendy Y. Chen, MD, MPH, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, tells WebMD.

"It appears that by changing their drinking behavior, women can impact their risk for breast cancer, no matter when in life they do this. That is the good news. The bad news is you can’t really change what you did in the past."

ACS: No More than One Drink a Day

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that women who choose to drink alcohol limit their intake to no more than one drink per day.

The latest findings from the study do not change this recommendation, ACS vice president of epidemiology Susan Gapstur, PhD, tells WebMD.

"This study and others found that heavy drinking was associated with the biggest risk, so the message to avoid heavy drinking is clear," Gapstur says, adding that the message about light to moderate drinking is more nuanced.

That is because moderate alcohol intake may protect the heart and lower a woman’s risk for heart attack and stroke.

She recommends that women talk to their doctors and consider their individual risk for breast cancer, heart disease, and stroke.

Chen and colleagues agree, concluding that the risks and benefits of light to moderate alcohol consumption have to be considered on an individual basis.

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