Coronavirus: stay safe with our facts, information and practical advice about alcohol and your health

Alcohol and breast cancer

Evidence tells us alcohol causes cancer and drinking alcohol increases a person’s risk of developing breast cancer.[1],[2],[3] Our guide can help you understand the link between alcohol and breast cancer, recognise the symptoms and reduce your risk.

Breast cancer symptoms

Cancer Research UK states 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

Most often these symptoms are caused by other medical conditions and are not necessarily symptoms of breast cancer, but if you experience any of them, it is important to get them checked by a doctor or another qualified member of your GP's team. Please visit the Cancer Research UK website for more information about the early symptoms of breast cancer.

Understanding breast cancer risks from alcohol

Globally, cancer is the fifth largest cause of alcohol-related deaths[4] yet few people make the connection between alcohol and cancer. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women[5] in the UK and while drinking alcohol doesn’t mean you will get breast cancer there is evidence to suggest that:

  • the risk of developing alcohol-related cancers, including breast cancer, increases significantly if drinking more than an average of one alcoholic drink a day – or one unit, which is equivalent to about one small (125ml) glass of wine;[6],[7],[8]
  • the more you drink over a lifetime the higher your risk of developing breast cancer becomes.[9]

Find out if your drinking could be harming your health

How does alcohol increase your risk of developing breast cancer?

The ways in which alcohol increases the risk of developing breast cancer are not fully understood but probably include:

  • The body breaks down alcohol into a substance called acetaldehyde which can cause changes in our DNA. This can trigger a response in the body which leads to cancerous cells developing.[10],[11]
  • Alcohol increases levels of female hormone oestrogen – high levels of oestrogen can cause a cancer cell continually to multiply.[12]

Remember, drinking alcohol even in very modest amounts for several years increases a person’s risk of developing breast cancer, and is also linked to six other types of cancer in men and women.[13] 

Other breast cancer risk factors

There are many other factors that increase a person’s risk of developing breast cancer, some of which we cannot control, such as:

  • Your age – you are more likely to develop breast cancer as you get older
  • A family history of breast cancer (i.e. genetic risk)

Other factors in addition to alcohol, include being overweight, which is known to increase breast cancer risk.[14] Recent evidence suggests that smoking, including passive smoking, may also increase the risk of developing breast cancer in some people, particularly in women after the menopause.[15]

Cancer Research UK estimates that 23% of breast cancers are preventable, and that includes the 8% (or one in 13) of cases due to alcohol.[16] Learn more about the risk factors from Cancer Research UK here.

Learn more about the potential harms from alcohol specific to women

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

You can help keep your risk of developing breast cancer from alcohol lower by following the UK Chief Medical Officers’ (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines and not drink more than 14 units a week. But even regularly drinking just one drink a day increases your risk of breast cancer.[17]

If you do choose to drink alcohol, it is best to drink within the CMOs' low risk guidelines and to spread your drinking throughout the week, incorporating several drink-free days.

As well as reducing your drinking, being active, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and eating a balanced diet, can all help to reduce your risk of developing several types of cancer, including breast cancer.

Breast screening

All women in the UK 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 detect cancers when they are too small to see or feel. After 70, women can choose to continue three-yearly breast screening.

For more information about breast screening in the UK, follow the links below.

If you live in England

If you live in Scotland

If you live in Wales

If you live in Northern Ireland

Male breast cancer

Breast cancer is rare in men and more research is needed to understand the link between alcohol and the increased risk of developing it. However, advice for men who choose to drink is the same as for women; not regularly drinking more than the CMOs’ low risk guidelines will help reduce the risk of developing male breast cancer, although regularly drinking even modest amounts of alcohol is linked with increased risk.

Find out more about alcohol and men's health

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Last reviewed: 2 March 2020

Next review due: 2 March 2023

References

[1] IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans. (2012). Personal habits and indoor combustions, volume 100 E. A review of human carcinogens. Lyon, France: International Agency for Research on Cancer France, p. 394. Available at: http://publications.iarc.fr/122. [Accessed 9 October 2019].

N.B: In the evaluation of the carcinogenicity of alcohol (p.472), IARC state that alcohol causes breast cancer and classifies it as a group 1 carcinogen.

[2] Brown, K.F., Rumgay, H., Dunlop, C., Ryan, M., Quartly, F., Cox, A., Deas, A., Elliss-Brookes, L., Gavin, A., Hounsome, L. and Huws, D. (2018). The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015. British Journal of Cancer, 118(8), 1130. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41416-018-0029-6#Sec22. [Accessed 9 October 2019].

N.B. The specific data are given in the electronic supplementary material (specifically: ‘Cancer attributable to risk factors, UK 2015 - Final Supplementary Material F’), which indicates, in 2015, the fraction of breast cancer cases attributable to alcohol in the UK was 8.1% in women, which is 8 cases in every 100 cases or 1 case in every 12.5 cases. For ease of understanding, we have ‘rounded up’ to 1 in 13 cases.

[3] Connor, J. (2017). Alcohol consumption as a cause of cancer. Addiction, 112(2), 222-228.

[5] 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. [Accessed 9 October 2019].

[6] Cao, Y., Willett, W.C., Rimm, E.B., Stampfer, M.J. and Giovannucci, E.L. (2015). Light to moderate intake of alcohol, drinking patterns, and risk of cancer: results from two prospective US cohort studies. Bmj, 351, p.h4238. Available at: https://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h4238. [Accessed 9 October 2019].

[7] Betts, G., Ratschen, E., Opazo Breton, M. and Grainge, M.J. (2017). Alcohol consumption and risk of common cancers: evidence from a cohort of adults from the UK. Journal of Public Health, 40(3), 540-548.

[8] LoConte, N.K., Brewster, A.M., Kaur, J.S., Merrill, J.K. and Alberg, A.J. (2018). Alcohol and cancer: a statement of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 36, 83-93. Available at: https://www.finut.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/jco.2017.76.1155.pdf. [Accessed October 13, 2019].

[9] Allen, N.E., Beral, V., Casabonne, D., Kan, S.W., Reeves, G.K., Brown, A. and Green, J. (2009). Moderate alcohol intake and cancer incidence in women. Journal of the National Cancer Institute101(5), 296-305. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/jnci/article/101/5/296/913713. [Accessed 9 October 2019].

[10] Liu, Y., Nguyen, N., and Colditz, G.A. (2015). Links between alcohol consumption and breast cancer: a look at the evidence. Women’s Health, 11(1),65-77. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4299758/.

[11] Coronado, G.D., Beasley, J. and Livaudais, J. (2011). Alcohol consumption and the risk of breast cancer. Salud pública de México,. 53(5), 440-447. Available at: http://www.scielo.org.mx/scielo.php?pid=S0036-36342011000500012&script=sci_arttext. [Accessed 9 October 2019].

[12] Key, T., Appleby, P., Barnes, I. and Reeves, G. (2002). Endogenous sex hormones and breast cancer in postmenopausal women: reanalysis of nine prospective studies. Journal of the National Cancer Institute94(8), 606-616. Available at: 
http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/94/8/606.long. [Accessed 9 October 2019].

[13] Bagnardi, V., Rota, M., Botteri, E., Tramacere, I., Islami, F., Fedirko, V., Scotti, L., Jenab, M., Turati, F., Pasquali, E. and Pelucchi, C. (2015). Alcohol consumption and site-specific cancer risk: a comprehensive dose–response meta-analysis. British Journal of Cancer, 112(3), 580. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/bjc2014579.

[14] James, F.R., Wootton, S., Jackson, A., Wiseman, M., Copson, E.R. and Cutress, R.I. (2015). Obesity in breast cancer–what is the risk factor? European Journal of Cancer51(6), 705-720. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25747851. [Accessed 9 October 2019].

[15] Dossus, L., Boutron‐Ruault, M.C., Kaaks, R., Gram, I.T., Vilier, A., Fervers, B., Manjer, J., Tjonneland, A., Olsen, A., Overvad, K. and Chang‐Claude, J. (2014). Active and passive cigarette smoking and breast cancer risk: results from the EPIC cohort. International Journal of Cancer134(8), 1871-1888. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24590452. [Accessed 9 October 2019].

[16] Cancer Research UK. Breast cancer risk. Available at: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/breast-cancer/risk-factors. [Accessed 21 October 2019].

[17] Cao, Y., Willett, W.C., Rimm, E.B., Stampfer, M.J. and Giovannucci, E.L. (2015). Light to moderate intake of alcohol, drinking patterns, and risk of cancer: results from two prospective US cohort studies. Bmj, 351, p.h4238. Available at: https://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h4238. [Accessed 9 October 2019].

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