Last week, actress Rita Wilson opened up about her post-breast cancer surgery story for Harper's Bazaar. Wilson, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and had a double mastectomy and reconstruction, admits that fear moved her to make big lifestyle changes. One of the biggest changes? How much alcohol she drinks. Wilson explains, "I had already changed my diet and reduced alcohol consumption to three to five glasses of alcohol per week."
Three to five glasses sounds pretty reasonable, especially as many experts tout the health benefits of having one or two glass of red wine every day for its anti-inflammatory properties and its association with lower rates of heart disease. But a major 2017 report by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund is casting doubt on even that moderate assertion. The report “Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Breast Cancer” included 119 published studies that canvased 12 million women (260,000 of whom had breast cancer). According to the press release, "The report found strong evidence that drinking the equivalent of a small glass of wine or beer a day (about 10 grams alcohol content) increases pre-menopausal breast cancer risk by 5 percent and post-menopausal breast cancer risk by 9 percent." To put this into perspective, an average glass of red wine in the U.S. has 12 to 14 grams of alcohol.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman, No. 1 New York Times bestselling author and a board-certified family physician, explains the theory for why this might be. He tells Alamosa News, "There are gender differences in alcohol metabolism. The same amount of alcohol causes a greater blood alcohol level to be reached in females compared to males of the same weight," meaning women are also exposed to more potentially carcinogenic substances from ethanol—like acetaldehyde—that our bodies break down in alcoholic beverages. Fuhrman adds that the way a woman's body metabolizes alcohol "may also increase estrogen levels, which could further increase the breast cancer risk associated with alcohol consumption."
But does that mean we need to cut out all alcohol consumption? Not quite.
Until they can perform more randomized controlled trials, scientists are only sure that this is an association, not a causation at this point. "Cancer experts say the findings don't tell us anything new about the link between alcohol and breast cancer, which is already well known. But if you can, to stack the odds in your favour, they say it is a good idea to have some alcohol-free days during every week and not to increase your drinking," the BBC reports.
It's empowering to know there's something you can do about lowering your breast cancer risk. If you drink alcohol, stick to one drink or less per night and have three or four non-alcohol days. Though "for health and longevity," Dr. Fuhrman recommends, "the safest choice is to not drink any alcohol," as alcohol at higher intakes is firmly associated with a host of health problems besides breast cancer.
At a time when more women than ever are binge drinking, sharing this news could save thousands of lives each year. So in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, try a mocktail one night to truly drink to your heath.