Alcohol and Breast Cancer
–did I really say those two things together in the same sentence?
Yes, I did.
Let me set the stage for you.
It’s 5:00 p.m. and I’m making some chicken for dinner.
I haven’t been watching the clock, not exactly, but I’m happy to see the time. I skip over to the fridge and pull out a bottle of white wine.
Whenever I pour myself a glass of pinot gris, like I’m doing right now, I think of my husband’s grandmother.
Great Grandma just celebrated her 99thbirthday. She’s as hale, feisty, and sharp as ever. (Though a little more shrunken than she once was.)
I want what she’s having, and what she has—every night—is one glass of Italian pinot grigio with a single ice cube.
I’ve long suspected that that glass of wine, along with her loving family (she’s the mother of seven children), large circle of friends, and busy social life, has been the secret to her lifelong good health.
Alcohol and Breast Cancer–Have I Been Wrong?
Though at least one in five Americans, like me, believes that alcohol in moderation is good for you, we all may be sorely mistaken. Indeed, we all may be being duped by a multi-billion dollar alcohol industry that wants us to believe in alcohol’s health benefits.
As Stephanie Mencimer, a breast cancer survivor, explores in an outstanding new investigation in Mother Jones, Did Drinking Give Me Breast Cancer?, not only is alcohol of dubious medical benefit, but actually alcohol and breast cancer are linked.
Alcohol: a Recognized Carcinogen
Is there really a cause and effect connection between alcohol and breast cancer?
The answer, unfortunately, seems to be yes.
Since the late 1980s the World Health Organization has classified alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen (source).
Other Group 1 carcinogens—which are substances known to cause cancer in humans—include gnarly things like:
- tobacco smoke
- ionizing radiation (source) [that includes x-rays]
So you're seriously telling me that my beloved wine is in the same class of carcinogens as asbestos, formaldehyde, tobacco smoke and radiation?
Yes, it turns out that alcoholic beverages, as well as acetaldehyde (a product of alcohol metabolism) are both on the list of Group 1 carcinogens, known to cause cancer in humans.
Who really wants to know?
Answer? Not many of us.
My Family’s Vexed Relationship with Alcohol
We have a bit of a vexed relationship with alcohol in our family. My grandfather was what you might call a “high-functioning” alcoholic.
A Jewish community leader, lawyer, and civil rights activist, he was often visibly drunk. His breath reeked of liquor, and he was inappropriately sexual, giving me and his youngest daughter (the child of wife #3 and only six months older than me) disgustingly wet smacks on the lips when we were in our teens.
A close relative of my husband’s is in recovery. So is my co-author and close colleague. Sober 15 years and counting, Dr. Paul to this day shuts off the television when drinking commercials come on.
My husband and I have both seen firsthand how pernicious excessive drinking can be, but neither of us has addictive tendencies. So we’ve always been rather European in our approach to alcohol.
James is a bit of a foodie snob and enjoys a craft beer with dinner sometimes and a single malt scotch in the evenings. I delight in my daily glass of Oregon white wine and the occasional fru-fru girly drink when I go out with friends (which, admittedly, isn’t very often). Though we’ve both used alcohol for stress relief, neither of us drinks very much, and rarely—close to never—in excess.
What's more, we’ve always allowed our kids to take a sip of our drinks, which is what my father used to do with my brother and me. We also talk openly to our children about the dangers of alcoholism and addiction.
I’ve fretted on and off over the years that our lax approach and unlocked liquor cabinet might be giving our teens the wrong idea.
But I’ve never been aware and certainly I’ve never been told by a doctor, that alcohol could be carcinogenic.
Everywhere You Look, There’s (Breast) Cancer
My grandmother died of lung cancer.
My friend’s sister died of breast cancer.
Four of my friends, all moms around my age who breastfed (which is protective against breast cancer and all women who do their darndest to limit their exposure to carcinogens, are battling this horrible disease.
This is the case for almost everyone these days, isn't it? Cancer of all types, including breast cancer, seems to be everywhere.
Researchers at Harvard University call alcohol “both a tonic and a poison” (source). But they also point out that the link between alcohol and breast cancer has been firmly established:
There is convincing evidence that alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer … In a combined analysis of six large prospective studies involving more than 320,000 women, researchers found that having two or more drinks a day increased the chances of developing breast cancer as much as 41 percent. (source)
But the dose makes the poison, doesn’t it? (I hope…)
Surely the dozens of scientific studies that have been published showing that moderate drinking has health benefits have some legitimacy?
Maybe. Maybe not.
In her article about alcohol and breast cancer in Mother Jones, Mencimer makes a convincing case for why we should be skeptical of the purported health benefits of alcohol. She reveals that much of the research done on these benefits has actually been funded by Big Alcohol. Her article, which I recommend you read, left me with more questions than answers, but what I know for sure is that I need to look more critically at how much and how often I drink.
There do seem to be some health benefits to white wine. But we also know that drinking less than one alcoholic beverage a day has been associated with recurrence of breast cancer.
There it is again: breast cancer and alcohol consumption, hand in hand.
I’m at higher risk for breast cancer because I started menstruating when I was only ten years old.
According to breastcancer.org, because of this apparent link between breast cancer and alcohol consumption, that means I need to limit my intake of alcohol and I should not drink more than one or two alcoholic beverages a week.
But suddenly my white wine, with its notes of grapefruit and oak, doesn’t seem so appealing.
I sigh and pour it down the sink.
I guess I’ll do some juicing instead.
What do you think after reading this?
Will you stop drinking completely ,or have an occasional glass, or….
Jennifer Margulis is an investigative journalist who has been researching and writing about health for over fifteen years. A Fulbright grantee and sought-after speaker, she is the author of Your Baby, Your Way and co-author, with Paul Thomas, M.D., of the Amazon-bestseller, The Vaccine-Friendly Plan. Their next book, The Addiction Spectrum: A Compassionate, Holistic Approach to Recovery, includes a chapter on alcohol. Read more about her at http://jennifermargulis.net.