Alcohol plays a causal role in seven cancers, including one of the most common: breast cancer.
In this guest blog from Breast Cancer UK, Charlie reflects on her decision to cut down on drinking to reduce her breast cancer risk.
I’m Charlie, and I’m 37. My mum had breast cancer ten years ago. Luckily, it was caught at Stage 1. But it was high-grade cancer, so she needed chemo and radiotherapy after a lumpectomy. Thankfully, she is well now.
Since she had it, I’ve obviously been more conscious about breast cancer. A good friend at choir got cancer in her 30s, which was close to home too. And in the advent of social media – and probably my anxieties about breast cancer coming back to me in the algorithm – I think it’s on my mind more than your average person. I check my breasts regularly, but I hadn’t really considered lifestyle choices.
It wasn’t until I became aware of the risk factors for alcohol that I began to question my relationship with it. At a New Year party a family friend recommended I download an app to record what I was drinking. I’ve never been a *massive* drinker. Aside from weddings and special occasions, I didn’t tend to binge. I would like a few glasses of wine in the week. And I’d have the odd gin too. But with the app, I realised that it could quickly add up. I was approaching my weekly recommended limit, and this was happening more than I would have liked. It started to freak me out.
I started to limit what I was drinking. But I found it quite hard. The social pressure to drink is huge, and you can feel like you have to justify sobriety.
But it wasn’t until I had a really important conversation with one of my close friends who had given up booze a few years ago. I knew that she had done it for health reasons – there is cancer in her family. But when we had a proper chat about it, she explained that she got sick of the health anxiety associated with boozing and realised it wasn’t worth it. When she shared her mental anguish about drinking, and I recognised these thoughts too – it dawned on me how much grief drinking gave me.
I decided I’d had enough of it too. I started to experiment with going out and not drinking. I realised I loved it. Being free from the angst of having a drink and the ability to drive home was bliss. I couldn’t believe how great I felt. The nights I allowed myself to drink I found myself happy with the one drink. I had worried about having to explain myself to people, but actually, no one cared.
No alcohol tastes as good for me as peace feels. I think because drinking is woven so deeply into our culture, we do it without thinking about it. I haven’t given up alcohol altogether, but only drinking occasionally has been a revelation.
You can get breast cancer for lots of reasons but there are risk factors, and alcohol is one of them. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer in women. The more women drink, the more breast cancer risk increases. Even very light drinking (one drink per week) increases the risk.
In the UK, it is estimated that 8% (around 4,400) of female breast cancer cases are linked to alcohol consumption. Breast Cancer UK suggests drinking in moderation; as a minimum, do not exceed UK government guidelines of more than 14 units of alcohol per week, avoid binge drinking and aim to have some alcohol-free days each week.
The Alcohol Health Alliance say: “Even at low levels of alcohol intake (below 1.5 units per day, or 10.5 units per week), there is an increased risk of breast cancer in women.
“For female breast cancer, relative risks of both illness and death from the disease increase by 16% if regularly drinking at two units per day (equivalent to the CMO guidelines); by 40% if regularly drinking at five units per day (more than double the proposed guideline).”
They added, “A quarter of all adults aged 45-54 drink at increasing or higher risk. People in the 55-64 age bracket consume the most alcohol, with 28% of all adults aged 55-64 drinking above the CMO’s guidelines.
“There is no safe level of alcohol consumption, but cutting down can significantly help to reduce your risk, e.g., risk of illness and death from breast cancer decreases from 40% when drinking 28 units a week to 16% when drinking 14.”
Written by Charlie Pears and Breast Cancer UK
Start your prevention journey today with the Breast Cancer Prevention Quiz here. It’s never too soon or too late to reduce your risk of breast cancer. For tips on how to reduce your alcohol intake, read the Breast Cancer UK blog here.
This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.