Many factors can increase a person's chance of getting breast cancer. Some, like genetics, can't be helped. Others, however, can be altered. Alcohol falls into the latter category. But a new study has found that the link between breast cancer and alcohol consumption needs to be made more obvious.
Researchers recruited 238 people, including women who were attending a breast cancer screening or having symptoms checked and 33 breast unit staff. Each participant filled out a lifestyle risk factor questionnaire.
Many of those questioned we able to identify other risk factors for breast cancer, state the results published in BMJ Open. But awareness related to alcohol was different. People who didn't drink alcohol had a similar level of knowledge, with 15 percent of the screening group and 16 percent of the symptomatic group identifying it as a risk factor. But when it came to those who did drink alcohol, the two groups demonstrated a big variation. Symptomatic participants (35 percent) were way more likely to recognise alcohol's link to increased breast cancer risk than people attending a screening (4 percent).
Yet, researchers noted, although 58 percent said they knew how to estimate the alcohol content of drinks, only 24 percent gave the correct unit for a bottle of spirit and litre of cider. This figure increased to 55 percent for correctly guessing alcohol units in a pint of beer and 72 percent for a glass of wine.
More than 11,000 people still die of breast cancer each year in the UK and 23 percent of overall cases are preventable, states Cancer Research UK. Educating people on easy ways to prevent the disease could be key to lowering the death figure. And alcohol's impact is one point that needs particular attention, according to researchers.
Female study participants showed general positivity toward being given cancer prevention tips during screening or clinic appointments. But breast unit staff told study authors they needed more evidence about the link between alcohol and breast cancer in order to feel confident advising patients. Some also reported "relatively low levels of literacy" around the topic.
"Although the exact mechanism by which alcohol acts to promote carcinogenesis is unclear, epidemiological evidence that alcohol is a significant and modifiable dose-dependent risk factor for breast cancer is now widely accepted by the scientific community," researchers wrote. Indeed, Cancer Research UK states that the risk increases with each additional unit of alcohol consumed per day. (A single spirit measure, small glass of wine, or half pint of beer constitutes one unit. UK adults are recommended not to drink more than 14 units a week.)
Professor Julia Sinclair, who led the study, told the BBC that "alcohol increases the risk by three per 100, so it's a low absolute risk." But she said the risk is "something that's modifiable." People should therefore be given the knowledge they need to keep their risk as low as possible.
"If you have a family history, you would be referred for monitoring. But if you're overweight or drinking more than you should be, people don't say 'there's something you could do about that,'" she continued to the BBC. "This is about empowering women to have the knowledge so they can make decisions."
Emma Shields, health information manager at Cancer Research UK, also told the BBC that "cutting down on alcohol is one of the best ways people can reduce their risk" and described the lack of awareness study results as "worrying". "You don't have to give alcohol up completely," she added. "Having smaller servings and more alcohol-free days can make a big difference."