Breast cancer: Cut down on alcohol to lower risk

By Maria Cohut   

Fact checked by Isabel Godfrey

New research involving
Australian women aged 45 years and over found that the majority of this cohort
believes that there is not a significant link between alcohol consumption and
breast cancer risk. That could not be less true, the investigators warn.

The World Health Organization
(WHO) note that breast cancer is the most prevalent type of cancer in women
across the world.
Many factors can increase the
risk of developing breast cancer, some of which are nonmodifiable — chiefly age
and sex — and some of which a person can act upon, including a lack of physical
activity or being overweight.
Another proven risk is alcohol
consumption, with one major report warning that a single alcoholic drink per
day can boost a person’s likelihood of developing breast cancer.
Despite this, it seems that
numerous women over the age of 45 years, who are those most at risk of
developing this type of cancer, continue to ignore specialists’ warnings that
they should reduce their alcohol consumption. At least, that is the conclusion
of a recent study that recruited a cohort of Australian women in this age
Lead author Dr. Emma Miller
from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia argues that the study findings
highlight the need to improve current public health policies that focus on
“There is a low level of
awareness about the established link between alcohol and breast cancer and some
confusion about the risk given the community perception that not all drinkers
get breast cancer,” notes Dr. Miller.
“So, it’s really
important to understand the patterns and drivers behind drinking behavior in
order to develop policies and interventions that might reduce the increasing
burden on the women and our health system.”

-Dr. Emma Miller

Women unaware of the risks

For this study, the findings
of which appeared in the journal PLOS ONE yesterday, the researchers recruited
35 South Australian women aged between 45 and 64 years who had never received a
cancer diagnosis.
Dr. Miller and team
interviewed each of the participants to find out more about their alcohol
consumption patterns, their level of education, and their thoughts on their own
risk of developing breast cancer.
The researchers found that
many of these women did not understand their level of breast cancer risk and
were more likely to cut down on alcohol if it negatively affected their
lifestyle, relationships, or body weight.
“It’s interesting that
the group were most aware about short-term harms like the impact alcohol has on
their weight, mental health, and relationships rather than cancer,” says
Dr. Miller.
The researcher believes that
the reason why women remain oblivious to the long-term health risks that
alcohol poses may have something to do with a deep-rooted drinking culture.
“Alcohol is firmly
entrenched in the fabric of Australian society, providing pleasure and defining
the major events in most of our lives,” the lead researcher notes, adding
that, “Raising awareness of alcohol-related cancer risk, despite the
importance of this, will not be sufficient to counter patterns of consumption.”

‘Getting the right messages

The lead researcher also
thinks that the alcohol industry’s marketing campaigns tend to gloss over the
risks of alcohol consumption in favor of its potential benefits, offering a
distorted image of this practice to a willing audience.
“We all want to hear good
news about drinking, such as small amounts of red wine may be good for
cardiovascular disease, which is a message that’s promoted by the alcohol
industry,” Dr. Miller points out.
“In contrast, information
that alcohol is linked to breast cancer is actively suppressed by the industry,
presumably in order to build the female customer base,”
she speculates.
Dr. Miller believes that the
current findings should be a springboard for the relevant authorities to come
up with better public policy strategies to educate women about the real risks
of alcohol and convince them to make positive lifestyle changes.
“Our research shows that
while more middle-aged women are drinking, there are ways of getting the right
messages through by focusing on issues important to them,”
Dr. Miller
“For example,” she
adds, “younger people are drinking less, so we can look into the reasons
behind that and utilize them.”

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.