In order to understand how drinking alcohol can affect a womans risk of getting breast cancer, we will discuss the two topics separately before putting them together. Both breast cancer and alcohol cause the body to have severely negative reactions, so understanding the severity of each is important in order to see how severe both can be together.
Understanding Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is when cancer is formed in the cells of the breasts. It can occur in men as well as women, but it is much more common in women. Breast cancer awareness has become more well-known as more people are diagnosed, but what exactly does it do to the body?
Here are some symptoms that can be found in patients with breast cancer:
● Fatigue (which could last for months)
● Nipple leaking blood
● Hair/skin changes, such as hair falling out, or dry and flaky skin (mostly caused by
chemotherapy and radiation therapy)
● Swelling (due to the removal of lymph nodes during surgery)
● A lump appearing within the breast
● Thinning bones (caused by drugs and chemotherapy)
Besides surgery, there are other methods to help breast cancer patients to monitor and inhibit their symptoms. These include:
Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is when drugs that contain powerful chemicals are used to kill cancer cells. There are specific chemo drugs that “can lead to heart problems, especially if you have existing heart problems” (Pathak 2021). Other side effects of this treatment, aside from those listed above, can be hot flashes, memory loss, nausea, diarrhea, pain or numbness in the toes and fingers, weight gain, and missed periods in women.
Radiation Therapy: This method of therapy is when high doses of radiation are used to try and kill cancer cells within the body. It is best if used in the beginning stages of cancer. There are side effects to this treatment (mostly in the lungs), including dry cough, trouble breathing, and chest pain. If the patient develops a lung disease from treatment, it will usually show up “2-3 months after your treatment ends” (Pathak 2021).
Hormone Therapy: This procedure is usually used after a patient gets surgery to lessen the risk of cancer coming back. During hormone therapy, the patient takes drugs that will tell their estrogen (hormones that play an important part in a woman’s reproductive system) to stop cancer cells from growing and spreading throughout the body. A specific drug called tamoxifen can “raise your risk for serious medical issues like stroke, blood clots, and uterine cancer” (Pathak 2021). Some of the other side effects associated with tamoxifen include discharge, weight gain, and hot flashes.
Each patient has a different experience with different treatments, so it is always important to keep track of symptoms and update the doctor. This way, symptoms can be properly treated, and the right form of therapies can be recommended.
Understanding the Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol causes many different things to happen to the body that you may have never heard of. It is commonly said that alcohol changes the function of the kidneys, making them have a harder time filtering the blood that is running through the body, but what are some of the more lesser-known symptoms of drinking alcohol? Listed below are some ways that alcohol changes the body:
● The brain can shrink if alcohol is
consumed to much. This can affect
the way a person is
able to “think, learn, and remember
things” (DerSarkissian 2019).
● Often times, drinking can make you
sleepy, but “your body processes alcohol
throughout the night” (DerSarkissian 2019), causing you to not get the deep sleep that
helps your body restore.
● Alcohol irritates your stomach lining, which causes the digestive fluid in the stomach to
increase. When a person consumes alcohol too much, it “ can cause painful sores
called ulcers in your stomach” (DerSarkissian 2019), which leads to throwing up, and in
the long-term less nutrients are being digested in the body.
● The liver is the main organ that breaks down alcohol, which means that “it handles a lot
of toxins” (DerSarkissian 2019), causing the organ to worsen over time.
● Drinking a lot of alcohol over time can weigh your heart down, quite literally. The heart
muscles “droop and stretch, like an old rubber band” (DerSarkissian 2019), affecting the
way that the heart pumps blood throughout the body.
Alcohol will throw your hormones way off balance, the chemicals managing how your body does certain things. Breast growth is one of those problems, which is directly connected to breast cancer.
How Does Alcohol Influence Breast Cancer?
Now that we’ve gone over the severity of breast cancer and alcohol separately and how they affect the body, let’s talk about how these two things are connected. As various studies have shown, “alcohol consumption by adult women is consistently associated with risk of breast cancer” (Liu 2015). Why is that? Well, alcohol can change, specifically in women, how the body reacts to estrogen. Alcohol can “alter estrogen levels, which may lead to changes in breast density, affecting breast cancer risk” (McDonald 2013).
How much of a risk does alcohol impose on women when it comes to breast cancer? It is shown that “alcohol consumption has been linked to an approximate 30-50% increased risk in breast cancer” (McDonald 2013). This increases the average risk, which is around 13% by about 17-37%. This is a very large difference. Because the risk of breast cancer also “accumulates across a woman's life course” (Liu 2015), drinking in different stages of life can affect the level of risk a woman is at. For example, drinking in early adulthood and adolescence can increase the risk much more than someone who drinks later in life. In the United States, most young teens and adolescents are drinking, even though the legal age is 21. It is also shown that teenagers and young adults may have several drinks in one sitting rather than spacing out their drinks. This, also called binge drinking, and may cause certain women to have a “higher risk of breast cancer as compared with those who consistently have one drink every day” (Liu 2015).
Now that it has been shown that alcohol is proven to increase the risk of breast cancer, are there specific alcohols that can increase the risk more than others? It is shown that all alcohol contributes to the increased risk, but there are certain patterns within alcoholic beverages that have been analyzed that could be noted. Spirits are shown to have compounds that increase the risk of breast cancer while certain wines, like red wine, can “act as protective factors on breast cancer development” (Scoccianti 2014). Beers have also been shown to have specific compounds that can prevent breast cancer, but these are “at very low levels and their absorption in the body is limited” (Liu 2015), so these factors don’t necessarily contribute to breast cancer prevention.
The Overall Verdict of Alcohol’s Effect on Women?
Alcohol has been proven to have a negative effect on women by increasing their chances of breast cancer. Breast cancer happens when cells in the breast become cancerous, and alcohols have certain compounds that will increase this risk. Staying clear of alcohol altogether is the best way to keep risk at a minimum, or avoiding binge drinking and drinking in your youth. Keeping healthy is also a great way to combat breast cancer, coupled with visits to the doctor for mammograms (x-rays of the breast).
Chen, W. Y., Rosner, B., Hankinson, S. E., Colditz, G. A., & Willett, W. C. (2011). Moderate alcohol consumption during adult life, drinking patterns, and breast cancer risk. JAMA, 306(17), 1884–1890. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2011.1590
DerSarkissian, C. (2019, October 13). How alcohol affects your body. WebMD. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/ss/slideshow-alcohol-body-effects
Liu, Y., Nguyen, N., & Colditz, G. A. (2015, January). Links between alcohol consumption and breast cancer: A look at the evidence. Women's health (London, England). Retrieved November 11, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4299758/
McDonald, J. A., Goyal, A., & Terry, M. B. (2013). Alcohol Intake and Breast Cancer Risk: Weighing the Overall Evidence. Current breast cancer reports, 5(3), 10.1007/s12609-013-0114-z. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12609-013-0114-z
Pathak, N. (2021, February 4). How does breast cancer affect the body? WebMD. Retrieved November 17, 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/breast-cancer/guide/breast-cancer-effects-body
Scoccianti, C., Lauby-Secretan, B., Bello, P.-Y., Chajes, V., & Romieu, I. (2014, February 8). Female breast cancer and alcohol consumption: A review of the literature. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749379713006466
Author: Kayjah Taylor
Editor: Kaitlyn Longstaff
Public Health scientist: LaCher E-W, MPH