After journalist Stephanie Mencimer was diagnosed with breast cancer at 47, she went on a mission to find out why. By her account, she had done all the right things to stay healthy. What she found was horrifying: there has been a concerted effort to downplay the link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer putting women in grave danger with a lack of information.
When I was first tested for BRCA1 and BRCA2 in my late twenties (I'm an Ashkenazi Jew whose paternal aunt died of breast cancer and paternal grandfather had and was treated for breast cancer), my genetic counselor told me to make sure my BMI was in the mid-lower range ("cancer loves fat" he said) and start mammograms at 36 rather than the recommended 40 at the time. No mention at all of alcohol.
As with any shocking new health information, we have to remember to examine how this impacts women through lenses like race and class and geography.
An excerpt from Mencimer's story:
Researchers estimate that alcohol accounts for 15 percent of US breast cancer cases and deaths—about 35,000 and 6,600 a year, respectively. That’s about three times more than the number of breast cancer cases caused by a mutation of the BRCA genes, which prompted Angelina Jolie, who carries one of the abnormal genes, to have both her healthy breasts removed in 2013. The breast cancer risk from alcohol isn’t nearly as high as the lung cancer risk from smoking. But alcohol-related breast cancer kills more than twice as many American women as drunk drivers do. And alcohol is one of the few breast cancer risk factors women can control. Others, like starting menstrual periods before the age of 12 and entering menopause after 55, are baked in.
Overall, American women have about a 12 percent lifetime risk of getting breast cancer. Walter Willett, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who has conducted studies on alcohol and breast cancer, says a woman who consumes two to three drinks a day has a lifetime risk of about 15 percent—a 25 percent increase over teetotalers. By comparison, mammography reduces the death rate from breast cancer by about 25 percent. “Alcohol can undo all of that at about two drinks a day,” Willett says.