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Awareness remains low over alcohol and breast cancer risk

Research 13 Aug 2019
Drinking red wine

More than 100 studies have proven it – drinking alcohol increases a woman's risk of developing breast cancer.

Alcohol is thought to be the cause of between 5% to 11% of all breast cancer cases. However, awareness of the link between alcohol and breast cancer remains relatively low.

According to a UK study published in the online medical journal BMJ Open, less than one in five women attending a mammogram knew of the risk of alcohol. Even the staff had knowledge gaps, with less than half of the staff at the breast screening centre able to identify alcohol as a breast cancer risk factor.

In 2019, breast cancer is thought to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia. About 19,535 people in Australia will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year – an average of 53 people every day.1

There are factors that put some people at more risk of getting breast cancer. Some factors can't be changed, such as a woman's age or family history. However, other factors – known as modifiable risk factors – are things that we can change to reduce our risk.

Drinking alcohol, along with being overweight and not getting enough physical activity, are modifiable risk factors associated with breast cancer, according to Cancer Council Australia.

Alcohol can limit your liver's ability to control the levels of oestrogen in your blood, which can increase your cancer risk. It may also increase your risk by damaging DNA in cells.

Breast check1

The UK study included more than 200 women attending a breast clinic for breast imaging. About half of the women were going for a routine screening, while the other half were there due to the discovery of some symptoms. These women were surveyed, along with more than 30 staff.

Looking at different risk factors, almost one third of all participants identified obesity as a risk, and almost half recognised smoking. Yet, only 16% in the screening group and 23% in the group who were there after discovery of symptoms knew of any link between alcohol and breast cancer.

"The study supports the idea that knowledge of alcohol as a modifiable risk factor for breast cancer is low," says Jean Hailes' Head of Education and Knowledge Exchange, Chris Enright.

Overall, 66.5% of study participants drank alcohol and almost 57% could not accurately point out the correct alcohol content of commonly consumed alcoholic drinks.

Taking the opportunity to educate women on risk factors is an important step in reducing the burden of cancer in our community, says Ms Enright. "Drinking even one alcoholic drink per day increases your risk of developing breast cancer. The more alcohol you drink, the greater the increase in risk," she says.

"We want to make sure women have this information. And we want women to feel encouraged by the fact that a healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risk of breast cancer."

Drinking less alcohol, quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, being active and enjoying a balanced diet are all ways you can actively reduce your risk.

Cancer Council Australia recommends that if you choose to drink, you should:

  • limit your intake – the National Health and Medical Research Council recommends no more than two standard drinks a day (see the below table for what equals a standard drink)
  • avoid binge drinking. Do not 'save' your drinks using alcohol-free days, only to consume them in one session
  • have at least two alcohol-free days every week
  • choose low-alcohol drinks
  • eat some food when you drink.
Drinks alcohol volume 800 321

Find more information on alcohol consumption and your health.