Published April 17, 2013 By Dr. Susan Love
We just received some good news on the breast cancer front—for a change!
A study published online April 8 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that breast cancer survivors who have a drink a day actually fare better than women who don’t!
Questions surrounding a potential link between alcohol use and breast cancer risk have been a concern since 1977, when data from the Third National Cancer Survey showed a significant association between alcohol use and the increased risk of a variety of cancers, including breast cancer. Since then, additional studies have confirmed that daily alcohol use can increase a woman’s relative risk of developing breast cancer by 7%. (This article will help you understand what that really means.)
It was less clear, though, whether women who drank alcohol—before and/or after their breast cancer diagnosis—were at an increased risk of recurrence or death. To investigate that question, Polly Newcomb, an epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, analyzed data from 22,890 breast cancer patients enrolled in the Collaborative Women’s Longevity Study to see if alcohol use prior to diagnosis impacted breast cancer survival. (Almost 5,000 of these women also provided information about how much alcohol they drank after their diagnosis.)
Over the next 11 years, 7,780 of the women died, 3,484 from breast cancer. The surprise: Women who drank alcohol were not at greater risk of dying from breast cancer than women who did not drink. Moreover, women who drank were less likely to die of cardiovascular disease—or from anything!
How can this be? Well, we often forget that the biggest killer of women is cardiovascular disease—not breast cancer. And as we have improved breast cancer survival—through screening and improved treatments—other potential health problems that women can develop have become more important. In turn, so does the finding that drinking a little alcohol can be good for the heart.
Should you immediately take up drinking alcohol? Probably not. But you should remember to do other things that improve your heart health and decrease your cancer risk, like achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet. And if you are someone who enjoys life to the fullest by having an occasional drink, go for it!