Alcohol and breast cancer

The evidence is clear: Drinking Alcohol can increase the risk of developing breast cancer. Read our guide to help you understand the link between alcohol and breast cancer, recognise the symptoms and reduce your risk.

Breast cancer symptoms

Cancer Research UK state that you should see a doctor if you have noticed:

  • a change in the size, shape or feel of a breast
  • a new lump or thickening in a breast or armpit
  • skin changes on such as puckering, dimpling, a rash or redness of the skin
  • fluid leaking from a nipple when you aren't pregnant or breastfeeding
  • changes in the position of a nipple
  • breast pain

Your symptoms are unlikely to be cancer but it is important to get them checked by a doctor. Please visit the Cancer Research UK website for more information about the early symptoms of breast cancer.

Understanding breast cancer risks from alcohol

Globally, one in five of all alcohol-related deaths are due to cancer1 yet too few people make the connection between alcohol and cancer.  Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women2 so it’s vitally important to understand the role alcohol can play in its development.  

While drinking alcohol doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get cancer there is good evidence to suggest:

  • Risks of alcohol-related cancers (mainly breast cancer) increase from around one alcoholic drink a day.3
  • The more you drink over a lifetime the higher your risk of developing breast cancer becomes.4

Find out if your drinking could be harming your health

How does alcohol increase your risk of developing breast cancer?

The exact ways alcohol increases the risk of developing breast cancer are not fully understood but we do know what some of the potential reasons might be:

  • The body breaks down alcohol into a substance called acetaldehyde which can cause changes in our DNA which can trigger a response in the body which leads to cancerous cells developing.5
  • Alcohol increases levels of female hormone oestrogen – high levels of oestrogen can cause a cancer cell to multiply out of control.6

It's important to remember that drinking alcohol doesn't just increase the risk of developing breast cancer, it is also linked to six other types of cancer

Other breast cancer risk factors

It’s important to put the risks from alcohol into context. There are many other factors that increase the risk of developing breast cancer, some of which we can’t control like:

  • Age: you’re more likely to develop it as you get older
  • A family history of breast cancer
  • Being tall
  • A previous benign breast lump

However, in addition to alcohol, other lifestyle factors such as being overweight7 and smoking8 are thought to increase your risk of developing breast cancer.

Learn more about the potential harms from alcohol specific to women

How to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer from drinking alcohol

If you choose to drink, you can help keep your risk of developing breast cancer from alcohol low by following the UK Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidelines and not drink more than 14 units a week. The more you cut down on alcohol the more you reduce your risk.

If you do choose to drink, it is best to spread your drinks evenly throughout the week. If you wish to cut down the amount you’re drinking, a good way to do this is to have several drink-free days per week.

As well as reducing your drinking, getting enough exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and eating a balanced diet can help to reduce your risk of developing cancers, including breast cancer.

Breast screening

All women in England who are aged 50-70 and are registered with a GP are automatically invited for breast screening every three years. Breast screening is a type of x-ray test called a mammogram which can spot cancers when they are too small to see or feel.

The NHS Choices website provides more information about breast screening.

Male breast cancer

If you’re a male drinker worried about developing breast cancer, the advice to not regularly drink more than the low risk drinking guidelines is the same. But male breast cancer is far rarer and more research is needed to understand the link between alcohol and the increased risk of developing it. There are other health effects of drinking that male drinkers should be concerned about first.

Find out more about alcohol and men's health

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If you would like to give us feedback about the information on this webpage, or any others on this website, please do so by emailing your comments to contact@drinkaware.co.uk 

Last reviewed: 17 November 2017

Next review due: 17 November 2020

References
  1. World Health Organisation website. Global Status report on alcohol and health. World Health Organisation, 2014. Page 26. Available at:
    http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/global_alcohol_report/msbgsruprofiles.pdf 
  2. Torre, L. A., Siegel, R. L., Ward, E. M. and Jemal, A. (2016) Global Cancer Incidence and Mortality Rates and Trends – an update. American Association for Cancer Research. 25(1): 16-27. Available at: http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/cebp/25/1/16.full.pdf
  3. Cao, Willett, Rimm, Stampfer and Giovannucci. (2015) Light to moderate intake of alcohol, drinking patterns and risk of cancer: results from two prospective US cohort studies. doi:10.113 6/bmj.h4 Available at: http://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/351/bmj.h4238.full.pdf
  4. Beral, N. et al. (2009) Moderate alcohol intake and cancer incidence in Women. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 101L 296-305. Available at: http://www.millionwomenstudy.org/publications/324/moderate-alcohol-intake-and-cancer-incidence-in-women
  1. Coronado, G., Beasley, J. and Livaudais, J. (2011) Alcohol consumption and the risk of breast cancer. Salud Publica de Mexico. 53(5): 440-447. Available at: http://www.scielo.org.mx/scielo.php?pid=S0036-36342011000500012&script=sci_arttext
  2. Key, T., Appleby, P., Barnes, I. & Reeves, G. (2002). Endogenous sex hormones and breast cancer in postmenopausal women: reanalysis of nine prospective studies. J Natl Cancer Inst, 94, 606-16. Accessed 24 February 2016. Available here: 
    http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/94/8/606.long
  3. James, F. R. et al (2015) Obesity in breast cancer – what is the risk factor? European Journal of Cancer. 51:705-720. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25747851
  4. Dossusm L. et al (2014) Active and passive cigarette smoking and breast cancer risk: results from the EPIC cohort. International Journal of Cancer. 134(8): 1871-1888. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24590452