Drinking in Early Adulthood Can Increase Breast Cancer Risk

Women who believe that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol won’t increase their risk of breast cancer may want to think again.

Last year, Wendy Chen, MD, of the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber and her colleagues published a study showing that women who drank as little as three to six glasses of wine or other alcoholic beverages a week increased their breast cancer risk by about 15 percent.

Drinking alcohol as a young woman can increase the risk of breast cancer.
Drinking alcohol as a young woman can increase the risk of breast cancer.

In a study published this month to examine the effect of drinking alcohol earlier in life, Chen and her associates found that women who drank in early adulthood had a higher risk of developing cancer than did young women who abstained from alcohol. For every 10 grams of alcohol consumed on average on a weekly basis, a woman’s risk rose by 11 percent. (A standard drink, such as a can of beer or a small glass of wine, contains about 12 grams of alcohol.)

Drinkers during early adulthood also had a 16 percent higher risk of developing proliferative benign breast disease – a condition that raises the risk that cancer will develop later on.

For all women, consuming higher amounts of alcohol was associated with a higher risk of breast cancer.

The new research drew on data from a study that has been tracking the health of hundreds of thousands of women for more than more than two decades. The researchers analyzed 20 years of medical records of 117,000 young women who didn’t have breast cancer when the tracking period began.

These findings support the theory that women’s breast tissue in early adult life is particularly susceptible to cancer-causing substances, potentially including alcohol.

4 thoughts on “Drinking in Early Adulthood Can Increase Breast Cancer Risk”

  1. France is a country that drinks a lot of wine. What is the breast cancer data for women in France?
    Glad these studies are given to us.

  2. What were the controls? Alcohol consumption is usually associated with other forms risk behaviors which may be a factor. For instance, drinking may also be associated with smoking or being in environments with second hand smoke. So, is it the alcohol or some other factor of which alcohol is associated?

    • Dear Rich,
      Here is a reply from Dr. Chen:
      The controls were people who did not consume alcohol in adolescence. The analyses controlled for all of the common breast cancer risk factors, including age, age at menarche, family history of breast cancer, age at first birth and number of pregnancies, body mass index, menopausal hormone use, and breastfeeding. We did not include smoking in the statistical model because smoking does not strongly affect breast cancer risk and did not affect the statistical models significantly.

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