I’m a Breast Cancer Survivor. Can I drink alcohol?

red wine alcohol

What You Need to Know: Moderate alcohol consumption is not associated with a higher risk of breast cancer relapse, and may lower your risk of death from other causes (e.g. cardiovascular ones).

Background: Drinking more than 1 standard drink of alcohol daily increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer slightly.  But once you have breast cancer, does continued alcohol consumption affect your or breast cancer recurrence? Does it change your  survival chances?

Study Design: A large study by Newcomb and colleagues (Journal of Clinical Oncology 2013; 31:1939) provides answers.  Over 22,000 women who had breast cancer in Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New Hampshire (USA) between 1988 and 2008 were evaluated by questionnaire.  After over 11 years follow up from the time of diagnosis, the risk of death was evaluated according to the amount of alcohol ingested.

Results: Moderate alcohol intake before diagnosis was linked with improved cancer survival (hazard ratio for survival 0.93 versus patients who did not drink). Alcohol drinking after diagnosis and treatment was not associated with cancer specific survival (hazard ratio 0.88, not significant).  However, there was a marked benefit of limited drinking on overall survival, with a hazard ratio for death from any cause of 0.63 for intake of 7 or more drinks per week and a specific hazard ratio of death from cardiovascular disease of 0.50 with intake of  7 or more drinks per week. 

My Take: In this study, moderate drinking did not appear to increase the risk of breast cancer recurrence or death. It does lower your risk of a cardiovascular death (for example from a heart attack or stroke).  Modest alcohol consumption may benefit your overall survival chances following breast cancer diagnosis without worsening breast cancer outcomes. If you enjoy alcohol, and do not have reasons not to drink (health, religious, or otherwise) it’s okay to drink a bit, but I’d still keep it modest: One standard drink per day. I’m Dr. Michael Hunter.

The small print: The material presented herein is informational only, and is not designed to provide specific guidance for an individual. Please check with a valued health care provider with any questions or concerns. As for me, I am a Harvard- , Yale- and UPenn-educated radiation oncologist, and I practice in the Seattle, WA (USA) area. I feel genuinely privileged to be able to share with you. If you enjoyed today’s offering, please consider clicking the follow button at the bottom of this page.

Available now: Understand Colon Cancer in 60 Minutes; Understand Brain Glioma in 60 Minutes. Both can be found at the Apple Ibooks store. Coming Soon for iPad:  Understand Breast Cancer in 60 Minutes; Understand Colon Cancer in 60 Minutes. Available now: Understand Colon Cancer in 60 Minutes; Understand Brain Glioma in 60 Minutes. Thank you.

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Harvard AB Yale MD UPenn Radiation Oncology Radiation Oncologist, Seattle area

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