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Tremendous strides have been made in the treatment and early detection of breast cancer. Even so, over 400,000 people are diagnosed with this condition annually in the United States. In some instances, risk factors such as drinking alcohol may play a role.

Alcohol has been found in hundreds of studies to increase risk for breast cancer, as well as other cancers, including:

This doesn’t mean that every person who drinks alcohol will get breast cancer. That said, decreasing consumption or eliminating it entirely may lower your risk for developing breast cancer and other cancers.

In this article, we’ll explain the connection between alcohol and breast cancer, plus provide suggestions for lowering your overall risk.

Alcohol is a known carcinogen, which means it can adversely affect hormone levels and damage DNA within cells.

People with a specific gene, called the alcohol dehydrogenase 1C*1 allele (ADH1C*1), may be at an increased risk for getting breast cancer due to alcohol use.

The gene mutations most associated with a family history of breast cancer are BRCA1 and BRCA2. Even though alcohol consumption is an established risk factor for breast cancer, it hasn’t been definitively shown to increase breast cancer risk among people who carry these particular gene mutations.

Hormonal impact

Most alcoholic beverages consist primarily of water and ethanol, a carcinogen. Studies have shown that ethanol increases estrogen levels significantly in premenopausal women, particularly in the middle of the menstrual cycle. Even light drinking may have this effect.

By increasing estrogen levels, alcohol can increase risk for estrogen-sensitive cancers, including estrogen receptor positive (ER-positive) breast cancer. ER-positive breast cancer is the most common form of this disease.

Cell damage

Once ingested, ethanol metabolizes into acetaldehyde, a carcinogen which is stored cumulatively in the body.

Acetaldehyde is a toxic substance that can damage DNA and the proteins in cells. It also prohibits cells from repairing damage. This allows cells to grow out of control, causing cancerous tumors to form.

Research has indicated that the more you drink on a daily basis, the higher your risk level for breast cancer. Binge drinking and long-term alcohol use also increase risk.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the more acetaldehyde you’re exposed to, the greater your risk for cancer, including breast cancer.

Pooled data from 118 studies found the following:

  • Light drinkers have a slightly increased risk (1.04-fold higher) over nondrinkers.
  • Moderate drinkers have a 1.23-fold higher risk over nondrinkers. Moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink daily for women and two drinks daily for men.
  • Heavy drinkers have a 1.6-fold higher risk over nondrinkers. Heavy drinking is defined as three drinks daily for women and four drinks daily for men.

Depending on your drinking history, it may make sense for you to stop drinking completely. Taking a common sense approach to drinking alcohol can also reduce breast cancer risk in some people.

If you enjoy an occasional drink, you’re probably not contributing to your overall risk of getting breast cancer. If you’re a daily drinker or binge drinker, however, you’ll benefit from cutting back.

Watering down drinks so that you take in less alcohol per drink can also help.

Drinking alcohol is an indisputable risk factor for getting breast cancer.

Moderate, heavy, and binge drinkers may have a greater risk than light or occasional drinkers.

All alcoholic drinks, including beer, wine, and mixed drinks contain about the same amount of alcohol. For that reason, the type of drink you ingest does not impact upon your risk level.

Stopping or reducing alcohol intake can help lower your overall risk. So can beneficial lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking and staying active.