Alcohol linked to raised risk of breast cancer

Doctors say balance needed to reap health benefits of drinking

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

LONDON, England (Reuters) -- Alcohol may be good for the heart but a daily glass of wine or beer can increase a woman's risk of breast cancer, researchers said Tuesday.

One unit, or eight grams of alcohol per day, raises a woman's chances of developing the disease by about six percent but smoking, which is linked to a range of other diseases and different cancers, does not contribute to the illness.

"The more women drink, the higher their risk of breast cancer," Professor Valerie Beral, of the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford told a news conference.

The scientists, who analyzed the results of 53 previous studies into the effects of alcohol and smoking on breast cancer, estimated that alcohol accounts for about four percent of breast cancers in the developed world.

Although the risk is small and represents only a tiny part of the picture of what contributes to the disease, Beral said women should be aware of it because it is a preventable risk.

About 40,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in Britain each year. If women stopped drinking alcohol there would be about 2,000 fewer cases annually, she said.

Unraveling risks

Until now, doctors had not been able to examine the separate effects of alcohol and smoking on breast cancer. But the size of the analysis which included data on 150,000 women worldwide allowed them to unravel the results to show a clear link between alcohol and breast cancer risk.

"When we did this we found that drinking, but not smoking, increases the risk of breast cancer," said Sir Richard Doll, a co-author of the report in the British Journal of Cancer. "This report is giving us a definitive answer."

But Doll stressed that although smoking is not linked to breast cancer, it is a leading cause of lung cancer which is notoriously difficult to treat, as well as other diseases.

Although the researchers do not know how alcohol raises the risk of breast cancer, they suspect it may alter levels of the female hormone estrogen.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. Early puberty, late menopause, a family history of the disease, delaying childbirth or not having children are risk factors.

Because alcohol has a protective effect against heart disease and stroke but a negative impact on breast cancer, Beral said the balance between the two may depend on a woman's age.

After the age of 65, women are more at risk of dying of heart disease than breast cancer so the benefit of moderate drinking could outweigh the negative impact on breast cancer risk.

"It's very personal. You can't make a blanket policy for everyone," said Dr Gillian Reeves, who contributed to the study. "It's important women know about this risk even if it is small."

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