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Breast Cancer and Alcohol: Your Guide

Posted on June 28, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Mark Levin, M.D.
Article written by
Anika Brahmbhatt

If you're living with breast cancer, you may be wondering how alcohol consumption can affect the disease’s progression and your symptoms. Many factors can affect your health, so it can be confusing to decide how much weight to give alcohol use in the scheme of everything else you may be researching.

It’s a good idea to get an overview of the association between alcohol and breast cancer. Talk to your oncologist to see if your drinking habits could interfere with your specific breast cancer symptoms or treatment.

Does Alcohol Increase Cancer Risk?

Alcohol and cancer risk is a topic that has been widely debated among public health researchers, partly because the effects of alcohol can differ depending on the type of cancer, as well as the type of alcohol. But for breast cancer, the research indicates that women who have three alcoholic drinks weekly experience a 15 percent higher risk of breast cancer compared to those who don’t drink at all.

Alcohol is a common topic of discussion on MyBCTeam. “I always knew alcohol increased risk but didn’t realize that it is a direct contributing factor until now,” shared one member. Another said, “I limit alcohol (I still drink a tad)...”

One study from 2016 found a strong relationship between drinking and developing breast cancer. The researchers noted that “all levels of evidence showed a risk relationship between alcohol consumption and the risk of breast cancer, even at low levels of consumption.”

Because alcohol increases estrogen levels in the body, it can have a negative effect on hormone receptor-positive breast cancer risk. In addition, alcohol may damage DNA in cells, which could increase the risk of developing breast cancer.

Understanding the Science

Research also suggests that the ethanol component of alcoholic beverages may be a factor in the risk of developing cancer. According to a 2013 study, one of ethanol’s negative effects is its downregulating of the tumor suppressor gene BRCA1, which in turn affects estrogen receptors in a way that creates greater opportunity for genetic damage. In other words, the ethanol that appears in most alcoholic beverages could make it easier for breast cancer tumors to develop.

As one MyBCTeam member pointed out, many people “can’t imagine that social drinking would hurt your immune system that badly.” In general, drinking too much can lead to a variety of serious, chronic health problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, even small amounts of alcohol intake can result in an increased risk of breast cancer. The American Cancer Society advises cutting out alcoholic beverages altogether.

How Will Alcohol Affect Treatment?

Many people wonder whether drinking alcohol will interfere with breast cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy. Alcohol can increase the side effects of chemotherapy, such as nausea and mouth sores. Many experts also suggest abstaining from alcohol if you are receiving other treatments, such as radiation.

“I made a personal rule: no alcohol within 24 hours of chemo (before or after),” shared one MyBCTeam member.

The National Cancer Institute emphasizes the importance of checking in with your treatment team regarding whether alcohol intake is advised during cancer treatments. In addition, you should check whether alcohol could have an impact on the effects of any medications you’re taking as part of your treatment plan.

If You’ve Already Completed Treatment

Staying vigilant about your health even after you’ve completed treatment can be exhausting, but it can pay off as an effective cancer prevention measure. Be honest with your doctor about your goals and how drinking alcohol factors into your life, so your health care team can best advise you given your medical history and potential for adverse effects.

Cancer research also indicates that in people who had early-stage breast cancer, drinking alcohol may lead to a higher risk of recurrence, even if these individuals had three or four drinks per week.

It isn't yet known exactly how drinking alcohol affects breast cancer recurrence, although it may have to do with a variety of factors, including other aspects of your health. Because there is little widely applicable knowledge on this topic, check in with your oncologist about your specific case.

Your Mental Health Is Important

Alcohol can be a prominent part of social gatherings. You may look forward to having a glass of wine with friends or enjoying a beer at the family barbeque. Adjusting to a non-drinking lifestyle can be awkward and, at times, feel uncomfortable. Be patient with yourself as you navigate this new territory.

“The challenge: How to enjoy the Super Bowl without alcohol,” wrote one MyBCTeam member. “I’m sure I’ll find a way.”

You can consider making nonalcoholic drinks such as mocktails to replace alcohol when you go to social gatherings. “Sparkling grape or apple juice (mock wine) really helps me through that challenge,” one MyBCTeam member said. “Plus … sparkling water does help a lot!”

In addition, it can help to surround yourself with a support system of family and friends who will respect your decisions and be there for you emotionally.

“Just recovered from a bad day,” shared one MyBCTeam member. “I wanted to go to the store and buy some Fireball Cinnamon Whisky to just numb my senses. I didn’t. I got through the day, and today is a better day so far.”

Cultivating Healthy Habits

There are many potential cancer causes other than alcohol consumption. Breast cancer risk factors can entail some factors you can’t control, such as your age and your genes. The CDC points out that having risk factors does not automatically mean you will get breast cancer, and not having risk factors doesn’t mean you'll be sure to avoid it.

Therefore, in addition to undergoing regular cancer screenings, it may be helpful to cultivate healthy habits that promote your general well-being, such as finding a type of physical activity you enjoy doing consistently.

Find Support Today

Deciding to stop drinking isn’t easy, but if you do choose to do so, you have more than 53,000 people to talk to on MyBCTeam who understand what it’s like to deal with breast cancer.

How has choosing to drink (or not drink) affected your life? Share your experiences in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyBCTeam.

Mark Levin, M.D. is a hematology and oncology specialist with over 37 years of experience in internal medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Anika Brahmbhatt is an undergraduate student at Boston University, where she is pursuing a dual degree in media science and psychology. Learn more about her here.

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