A new study has suggested that having just one drink a day raises the risk of breast cancer. Is this really the case?
While the associated risks of heavy drinking are well known, the effects of light or moderate drinking are much less clear.
The two American ‘cohort studies’ recorded detailed information about the health and lifestyles of more than 130,000 people and revealed that women who drank the equivalent of just one glass of wine a day over a 30 year period were 13% more likely to develop an alcohol-related cancer such as breast cancer.
Researchers from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School in the United States used the records of more than 88,000 women and 47,000 men from two long-running studies that began in the 1980s and ended in 2010.
The people involved in the study were asked about their diet, whether they smoked, how much they drank or exercised, and whether there was any history of cancer in their family. The same questions were asked every four years to ascertain whether or not their lifestyles had changed over time.
The purpose of the research was to look at how many people developed cancer over the study period and whether those who drank just a small amount of alcohol were more likely to develop the disease than those who abstained.
Cancers we know are related to alcohol intake include bowel cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer and mouth or throat cancer.
Light to moderate drinking was defined by the researchers as 15g of alcohol, or just over two units, for women, and less than 30g for men. When analyzing their results, the researchers took into account the effects smoking, obesity and any family history of cancer could have on their figures.
The results revealed that women who drank the equivalent of one small glass of wine a day and didn’t smoke, had a marginally increased chance of developing one alcohol-related cancer, namely breast cancer.
Factors known to influence the risk of developing breast cancer such as the use of the contraceptive pill, how many children a woman had and whether she breastfed, were not accounted for.
No significant link was revealed in men who had never smoked, but among men who currently or used to smoke, moderate drinking appeared to increase the risk of certain cancers.
What Do the Results Tell Us?
It is unrealistic to set a safe threshold level of alcohol. What this study does tell us though is that within this group of people, those who drank certain amounts of alcohol were more at risk of developing cancer that those who did not.
Experts have speculated that the substances we produce when alcohol is broken down in the body may increase the danger of cells turning cancerous. They suggest that breast tissue in particular, may be susceptible to the potentially toxic effects of alcohol.
Whether this marginally increased risk of developing cancer warrants cutting down on one’s alcohol intake depends entirely on an individual’s attitude to risk.
According to the British Medical Journal, “Cancer is one of the major causes of death globally, and cancer risks are frequently cited in arguments about formulating thresholds for low risk drinking guidelines.”
What is important to remember is that there is no guaranteed safe level of drinking. If you drink within the NHS-recommended daily limits - that of three or four units a day for men and two or three units for women - the risks of harming your health remain low.
People with a family history of cancer, particularly women with a family history of breast cancer, should think about reducing their alcohol intake to below these recommended limits.
Diagnosing Breast Cancer
As part of the NHS breast cancer screening programme, every woman in the UK between the ages of 50 and 70 is invited for a mammogram every three years. Even with the programme, many breast tumours are first spotted by women themselves. This is largely due to increased breast awareness and the prevalence of campaigns educating women on what kind of breast cancer symptoms to look out for.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women. More than 40,000 women in England are diagnosed with the disease each year.
The causes of breast cancer are still not fully understood. However, there are risk factors that are known to influence the likelihood of developing breast cancer. These include age, weight, height, a family history of breast cancer, breast density, a previous diagnosis of breast cancer, a previous benign breast lump, alcohol consumption, and whether you have undergone hormone replacement therapy, or been exposed to radiation.
If you notice a change in your breasts that isn't normal for you, it is important you consult your practice nurse or GP and ask for a referral to your local breast clinic. The earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the better your chances of effective treatment and therefore a cure.
Where a delay in diagnosing breast cancer occurs due to a preventable medical error such as a failure by one’s GP to recognise symptoms, administrative errors or when medical investigations have been misinterpreted, patients can suffer harm for which they may be entitle to compensation.
The Clinical Negligence team at Slater and Gordon Lawyers are widely experienced in handling claims related to delayed diagnosis and misdiagnosed cancer errors which can cause particular harm when it comes to breast cancer cases.
Paul Sankey is a Senior Medical Negligence Solicitor leading the Slater and Gordon Lawyers Clinical Negligence team in London.
Slater and Gordon Lawyers help people who have suffered from delayed or wrong diagnosis of cancer due to Medical Negligence. For a free consultation call our Medical Negligence Solicitors on freephone 0808 175 8105 or start your claim online.