Bloomington / Normal, IL

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A Breast Cancer Risk Factor You Can Change


By Mary Kay Holloway, RDN LDN, Dietitian at the Community Cancer Center

Risk factors for breast cancer include two categories—factors you can’t change and factors you can. The ones you can’t change include things like age, inherited genetic mutations, reproductive history, personal history of breast cancer or certain non-cancerous breast diseases, dense breasts, family history of breast cancer, previous treatment using radiation therapy, or if you took the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol).

Risk factors you can change are a smaller list and include a sedentary lifestyle, being overweight, smoking, taking hormones, and drinking alcohol.  Yes that does say alcohol.  I can hear all the questions that statement raises. I thought a glass of wine was good for me? That’s only true for heavy drinkers right? Why would alcohol raise my risk for breast cancer? Do I have to stay away from alcohol completely?  To answer those questions let’s look at what we know from research.

According to the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), we know that alcohol intake increases the risk of  several cancers including head and neck, esophagus, liver, breast, stomach, and colorectal.  Even small amounts of alcohol consumed regularly raise the risk of certain cancers, such as breast cancer. Why would this be so? The research doesn’t really tell us why. One thought is alcohol has empty calories leading to weight gain. Obesity with excess fat can lead to increased risk. Another theory is that alcohol can increase levels of estrogen and other hormones associated with breast cancer.

Results from a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology supported the association of alcohol and breast cancer. This study also gave evidence for an increased risk associated with heavy episodic (binge) drinking, especially among moderate drinkers. Notice the words heavy, binge, and moderate? A moderate drinker is someone who drinks 2–6 drinks per week. A heavy drinker would be someone who drinks seven or more drinks per week. Researchers from the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, Bangor University, and the University of Southampton, noted that if women drank one bottle of wine per week, their lifetime risk of cancer is equivalent to those who smoke 10 cigarettes a week which puts women at an increased risk of breast cancer.

As you can see, alcohol is a risk factor for breast cancer and one that you can change. Knowing that a standard serving would be 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces beer, and 1.5 ounces of liquor, here are some suggestions to help reduce your risk:

  • Don’t make it a routine to drink more than one drink per day. A light drinker would be someone who consumes 0–1 drinks per week.
  • Select low-calorie options to avoid unwanted weight gain.
  • Eat the berries and grapes instead of drinking wine.
  • Virgin Mary’s offer the benefits of tomato juice without the alcohol of vodka.
  • Enjoy a glass of sparkling water with fresh fruit on a drink stirrer.

The Community Cancer Center offers a variety of supportive and educational groups and programs, free of charge, to help patients and families cope with cancer and its effects.  For more information go to our website at