Study supports alcohol, breast cancer link

Carolyn Schatz

Former Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

For years, women have been cautioned that having more than one alcoholic drink a day increases the risk of developing breast cancer. A new study supports this link, and suggests that a drink a day may be too much (see “What is a drink?” below).

A team of Harvard-affiliated researchers tracked the health of 106,000 women over a 28-year period—an eternity in medical research. The women were asked several times over the course of the study about their diets, drinking habits, and much more. Women who had the equivalent of three to six drinks a week had a modest increase in their risk of breast cancer (15%) compared to women who never drank alcohol. While a 15% increase sounds like a lot, it would translate into an extra three cases of breast cancer per 1,000 women per year. The greater the alcohol consumption, the higher the risk of developing breast cancer. Two drinks a day would translate into an extra four cases of breast cancer per 1,000 women per year.

It didn’t matter what type of alcohol the women drank. The risks were the same for wine, beer, and spirits.

The results, published yesterday in JAMA, solidify what we know about the connection between alcohol and breast cancer. But how do they square with all of the “alcohol is good for your heart” messages women (and men) have been getting over the years?

The risks and benefits of alcohol have been calculated for large groups of women. But none of us is exactly like the mythical average woman that emerges from large studies. What’s important is to determine how alcohol consumption might affect us as individuals. As explained in an article in last month’s Harvard Heart Letter, “More to the story than alcohol = heart protection,” that depends on our own health risks.

If you are at high risk for coronary artery disease and low risk for breast cancer, a drink a day could be beneficial. If you are at high risk for breast cancer, then drinking alcohol might do you more harm than good. And keep in mind that alcohol affects almost every other system in the body beside the heart and breast.

With all the focus on the benefits and risks of moderate drinking, excess drinking is often overlooked. The National Institutes of Health estimates that 4 in 10 people who drink alcohol are heavy drinkers or at risk for becoming one, and that nearly 19 million Americans have a problem with alcohol.

If you are worried about your drinking, take one of the tests posted on our Web site, or check out Rethinking Drinking, a free report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

What is “a drink”?

In the United States, a standard drink contains about 0.6 fluid ounces of alcohol. The drinks shown above contain roughly that amount of alcohol. Moderate drinking is generally defined as no more than two drinks a day for men and no more than one drink a day for women. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines drinking as low risk, increased risk, and highest risk.

Related Information: Harvard Women’s Health Watch


  1. Adam

    One should respect alcohol. Dangerous stuff!

  2. Awiley

    Was there any sort of control for smoking for linking the fact that in the last 28 years if you were drinking a lot you were probably in a bar where smoking was allowed? It seems like a really ridiculous thing to not mention given the strong and proven link between drinking, smoking, and second hand smoke exposure.

    Alcohol does break down into what is effectively a poison by itself; however, why do we have a process to break down this poison? Because it is present in nature, in fruits and even created by our own bodies during the digestion process through the microorganisms in our stomaches. I think jumping to such a strong conclusion with these massive percentages is just headline grabbing.


    great post there…..but some women will not listen…in africa there are lots of them

  4. Taher Chowdhury Sumon

    Thank you for this wonderful article.

  5. Greg Miller

    Cancer research at University of Nevada School of Medicine directed by Dr. Hunter removes most sugar from the diet first based on the fact that cancer cells have 90+ receptor sites for sugar. The “no sugar” diet begins starving the cancer and probably stops proliferation or metastasizing. Alcohol is made from sugar and contains large amounts of mycotoxins. Good call telling people not to drink alcohol thinking it will help their cancer.

    This “no sugar” diet is also part of the 8-step cure for allergies and asthma developed by Dr. Fred Pescatore, M.D., New York City, in his book, “The Allergy and Asthma Cure.”

    I used it to stop the progress of my mother’s emphysema and COPD. I then used NAC to eliminate the excess mucus, omega-3 for reducing inflammation and beta-1,3/1,6-glucan to amplify her immune response and proteolytic enzymes to tear away the protective, protein covering on residual pathogenic cells in accordance with the research at the University of Nevada. I also replenished her probiotics with an enteric coated probiotic that included prebiotic formula and the Lactobacillus and Bifidus strains.

    17 months after beginning the diet and supplements, there was no sign of emphysema. She was no longer needing any supplemental oxygen, she could sleep all night without exacerbations, she could eat a full meal and she had re-gained all of her weight back.

    Her doctors were shocked since they expected her to die more than a year earlier. The drugs prescribed for emphysema did not cure the disease or even stop its progress. All they did was mask symptoms like shutting off the fire alarm in a burning building as a means of putting the fire out.

  6. Anonymous

    The breast enhancement process can take several weeks from the initial consultation through post-surgical recovery, and involves close communication and cooperation between patient and surgeon.Approximately 1 in 17 women Globally will develop breast cancer during her lifetime. As the exact cause of the disease remains unknown, prevention is difficult, and at best, we can direct our efforts toward early diagnosis, even at a pre-cancerous stage, and effective treatment.

  7. Anonymous

    Alcohol awareness should be pushed through and knowledge on breast cancer should be promoted as well to the public. Proper education must reached individuals who have experienced and who in danger of these problems.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  8. sarah monl

    Alcohol affects people differently. Some people after a night of drinking can sleep the day away but other people wake up early after a night of drinking.
    [URL removed by moderator]

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