On November 1, the Journal of the American Medical Association (AMA) released a new study, “Alcohol Consumption Over a Woman’s Lifetime Associated with Risk of Breast Cancer.” The study looked at the cumulative effect of low to moderate alcohol consumption among more than 100,000 women, ages 30 to 55, who were followed for 28 years.
In its aftermath, the study results were all over the press with headlines causing a frenzy among women who consume only a couple of glasses of a wine a week. They read:
“Women who drink three to six glasses of alcohol per week have a 15 percent higher risk of getting breast cancer than women who do not drink”
“A Few Drinks a Week Raises Breast Cancer Risk”
“Women: Even a Little Alcohol Ups Breast Cancer Risk, Research Finds”
“Even Small Amount of Alcohol Increases Risk of Breast Cancer”
Although the headlines are not inaccurate, they may be provoking unnecessary alarm. Ten days after the study results were released, the AARP posted an article titled: “Alcohol and Breast Cancer Link: Is Wine Really Bad for Women?” With a subtitle that reads, “The Risk May Not Be As Bad As You Think–or Fear,” the article calls on readers to take a closer look at the study’s statistics before adopting a lifestyle akin to the days of Prohibition.
Taking a different angle than prior research, this new AMA study looked at the cumulative effect of consuming low to moderate amounts of alcohol. Previous studies linking alcohol and breast cancer risk focused mainly on binge or heavy drinking.
The researchers found that those who drank as few as three to six alcoholic drinks a week during those years had a 15 percent increased risk of breast cancer, compared with those who didn’t drink. And women who regularly drank two or more drinks a day had a 51 percent higher risk than women who never drank.
As the AARP piece explains, “Those numbers — 15 percent increase and 51 percent increase — sound high until you do the math. The average woman’s risk of getting breast cancer in her lifetime is one in eight, or 12 percent. A 15 percent increase over that means her lifetime risk rises to 13.8 percent. For a woman age 50 to 59, whose risk of getting breast cancer while in her 50s is one in 42 or 2.4 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute, her risk rises to 2.76 percent,” the article continues.
So in other words, as Steven A. Narod, M.D., director of familial breast cancer research at the Women’s College Research Institute in Toronto, further clarified in an editorial accompanying the study, for women who had one drink per day, “their 10-year risk increased by 0.7 percent (from 2.8 percent to 3.5 percent).”
Although the risk is real and women need to weigh the risks and benefits of drinking, the ensuing panic may be premature. As reported by the AARP, the study’s authors pointed out in their conclusion: “We did find increased risk at low levels of [alcohol consumption], but the risk was quite small.”