Breast cancer patients who raised a glass or two a week may even enjoy slightly longer lives than those who didn’t drink.
While alcohol can benefit the heart, bone and even brain, studies showed that even moderate drinking — three to six glasses a week — could boost the risk of breast cancer by 15% compared to those who abstained. But a new study found that drinking before and after a breast cancer diagnosis did not hurt women’s survival from the cancer; in some cases, alcohol even seemed to improve survival.
“Our findings should be reassuring to women who have breast cancer because their past experience consuming alcohol will not impact their survival after diagnosis,” study author Polly Newcomb, head of the Cancer Prevention Program at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center said in a statement. “This study also provides additional support for the beneficial effect of moderate alcohol consumption with respect to cardiovascular disease.”
The researchers followed nearly 23,000 women who participated in a study of risk factors for breast cancer for about 11 years. They found that the type of alcohol women drank prior to their cancer diagnosis did not influence their likelihood of dying from their breast cancer. As previous studies showed, however, alcohol did provide survival benefits when it came to heart disease; women consuming three to six glasses of wine per week during the years before they developed cancer were 15% less likely to die of heart disease related conditions compared to women who didn’t drink. The benefit was strongest for wine, while beer, other spirits and heavier drinking did not translate into lower death rates from heart problems.
The trends were the same when the scientists looked at the women’s drinking habits after their breast cancer diagnosis. Drinking following the diagnosis did not seem to affect the participants’ survival from breast cancer, but it did reduce their risk of dying from heart disease; women who drank in moderation enjoyed a 39% to 50% lower risk of heart-related death during the study period compared to those who didn’t drink.
Considering the latest results in combination with previous studies on the potential dangers of alcohol for breast cancer patients, the authors say that it’s important to balance the risks of drinking with the benefits on the heart. While it’s not clear why alcohol can increase the risk of breast cancer, researchers believe it can trigger the production of estrogen, and excessive amounts of the hormone can promote abnormal growth of breast tissue. Scientists are also learning more about the connection between heart disease and breast cancer, and are aware that some cancer treatments may put the heart at risk. “Deaths owing to cardiovascular causes may be related to the cardiotoxic and metabolic effects of some breast cancer treatments,” the authors write in the paper, which was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. “Our ﬁndings suggest that alcohol consumption, before and after breast cancer diagnosis, is associated with a reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease. These results are reassuringly concordant with the previously described role for moderate levels of alcohol consumption in improved cardiovascular survival, regardless of breast cancer status.”
The fact that alcohol can impact the risk of developing breast cancer, but doesn’t have as much influence on survival rates, raises interesting questions about how doctors and patients should weigh the effect of drinking on cancer care. The findings shouldn’t be interpreted as a license to drink for cancer patients, but they should also provide some reassurance that past and continued alcohol consumption won’t negatively affect survival from breast cancer either. Before raising another glass, cancer patients should consult with their doctors about their own history of heart disease, to determine if alcohol might do more harm than good. And as with most advice about health behaviors, moderation may be a good guide.