Alcohol and Cancer

There is a considerable amount of uncertainty regarding alcohol consumption during cancer treatment and beyond.  Generally speaking, having a glass of wine now and again is not bad for your health. However, regular alcohol consumption is known to increase your risk of six different cancers, one of which is breast cancer.  This is because alcohol can raise estrogen levels, which in turn could affect a woman’s risk of breast cancer. 

What about ovarian cancer and alcohol?  Results of studies have been inconsistent especially since alcohol isn’t a direct ovarian carcinogen. Nonetheless, alcohol could influence ovarian cancer risk through its effects on estrogen (or other hormones) – which are believed to play a primary role in ovarian carcinogenesis. 

We typically hear that 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men can lower the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, but when it comes to breast cancer, these recommendations aren’t so clear.  What’s clear is that alcohol increases estrogen levels in the body which may increase the risk of estrogen-sensitive cancers.  

So what is a “drink”? 

A drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.  This doesn’t seem like a lot, does it?  Be mindful when you are pouring for yourself at home and be aware that most restaurants and bars may not stick to the 12 oz. /5 oz. /1.5 oz. rule either!  And remember, it’s not the type of alcohol, but the amount consumed over a period of time.   

Guidelines regarding alcohol consumption for those diagnosed with cancer are conflicting among organizations.  Our recommendation, if you choose to consume alcohol at all, is not to exceed 2 drinks per week. 

Bottom line, general recommendations are just that – general.  In order to reduce your risk of breast cancer, consuming less than these recommendations is best.   

What about alcohol during treatment or remission? 

During cancer treatment, alcohol should be avoided. Alcohol may interact with drugs thus increasing the risk for harmful side effects or interfere with the drug’s effectiveness.   

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of research out there discussing the effects of alcohol on recurrence.  The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that, “For breast cancer survivors, some early studies suggested, at least for ER+ breast cancer, risk of recurrence may increase when a woman has more than 1 or 2 drinks per week.  This is far below the standard health recommendation that women consume no more than 1 drink per day.”   

Other Lifestyle Factors 

In addition to cutting your alcohol consumption, keep in mind there are many things that are known to help reduce cancer risk: 

  • Consuming a healthy, balanced diet full of whole, plant-based foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds 
  • Engaging in physical activity (at least 30 minutes per day) 
  • Maintaining a healthy weight 
  • Getting adequate amounts of sleep 
  • Caring for your emotional well-being: keep stress levels low, practice self-care (whatever that is for you: reading, meditation, journaling, taking the dog for walk, calling a loved one, spiritual practice) 
  • Avoiding tobacco 

Mocktail” Fun 

Here are some great ideas for enjoying a fun non-alcoholic drink after a long week or when you are out and about!  

  • Freeze juice in ice cube trays and add them to a pitcher of water for an appealing look or add them to club soda or sparkling water 
  • Add fresh berries to the bottom of a champagne flute and top with club soda or sparkling water 
  • Decorate your glass or stirrer with cut up fruit or fresh herbs, such as mint or rosemary 

For additional “mocktail” inspiration, check out these links: 

*For more information regarding alcohol and certain cancers, be sure to check out sites like the American Cancer Society, American Breast Cancer Foundation or the Mayo Clinic for reliable information.  Also, be sure to talk with your health care provider regarding alcohol consumption. 

Michele DiCristofaro, MS, RD, LDN 

Sources: 

5 Little-Known Breast Cancer Facts 

Alcohol and breast cancer risk: What to know 

Drinking Alcohol 

Alcohol Use and Cancer 

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