Evidence tells us drinking alcohol contributes to increasing a person’s risk of developing breast cancer.1,2,3
Around eight out of every hundred cases of breast cancer in women in the UK are estimated to be attributable to alcohol.4
This guide explains the symptoms to look out for, why alcohol and other factors contribute to causing breast cancer, and what you can do to reduce your risk.
Breast cancer symptoms
Cancer Research UK advises 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 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
Most often these symptoms are caused by other medical conditions and they don’t necessarily mean you have breast cancer. But if you experience any of them, it’s important to get them checked by a doctor or another qualified member of your GP's team.
Visit Cancer Research UK to find out more about early breast cancer symptoms.
Understanding breast cancer risks from alcohol
Breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in the world and is the most common cancer among women.5
Drinking alcohol doesn’t automatically mean you will get breast cancer, and not drinking cannot guarantee you won't. But there is evidence that shows your risk of developing alcohol-related cancers increases significantly if you drink more than an average of one alcoholic drink (or one alcoholic unit) a day. That’s equivalent to about one small (125ml) glass of wine.6,7,8
For breast cancer in particular, there is no safe level of drinking alcohol - the risk of breast cancer among women who drink alcohol at all is higher than among those who never drink.
Research has also found that the more you drink over a lifetime, the higher your risk of developing breast cancer becomes.9 And alcohol doesn’t only contribute to breast cancer – it’s also linked to at least six other types of cancer in women and men.10
Alcohol contributes to the risk of developing breast cancer as well as other factors which we have no control over like age or family history. But alcohol - along with smoking11 and body weight12 - is one of the causes that we do have control over.
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.13,14
Alcohol increases levels of the female hormone oestrogen – high levels of oestrogen can cause vulnerable cells continually to excessively multiply and become cancerous.15
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and about 1 in 13 (8%) cases is estimated to be attributable to alcohol, yet only one-in-eight (13%) UK adults make the connection between alcohol and cancer.16
How can I reduce my risk?
Cancer Research UK estimates that almost a quarter (23%) of cases of breast cancer are preventable.17 Making healthy lifestyle choices such as not drinking more than a few units a week or not drinking at all, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and getting physical exercise, can all help to reduce a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
Drinking alcohol increases your risk of breast cancer.18,19 If you do choose to drink alcohol, it’s best to drink within the UK Chief Medical Officers’ (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines and to spread your drinking throughout the week, incorporating several drink-free days every week.
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.
Male breast cancer
Breast cancer is rare in men and more research is needed to understand how alcohol may contribute to the increased risk of developing it.20,21
However, advice for men who choose to drink is the same as for women. If you do choose to drink alcohol, it’s advisable to drink within the UK Chief Medical Officers’ (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines and to spread your drinking throughout the week, incorporating several drink-free days every week.