Alcohol Is A Major Risk Factor For Breast Cancer. Why Don't More Women Know?

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A woman participates in a wine tasting in California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A woman participates in a wine tasting in California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In 1988, alcohol was declared a class 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization. The National Cancer Institute says alcohol raises breast cancer risk even at low levels of drinking. And in the United States, an estimated 15 percent of breast cancer cases are related to alcohol.

Public health officials in some countries, including England and Australia, have launched ad campaigns warning of alcohol's links to cancer. One ad, aired in western Australia in 2010, features a glass of red wine spilling on a white table cloth:

Mother Jones investigative reporter Stephanie Mencimer (@smencimer) discovered all this after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and decided to dig into the causes of the illness. While she says she'll never know what caused her cancer, Mencimer tells Here & Now's Robin Young that women need this information in order to make decisions about their health.

"I was really shocked that I just had never heard this," Mencimer says.

Interview Highlights

On what she found reporting on links between alcohol and cancer

"Just for the basics, alcohol is implicated in about seven different types of cancer. It's responsible I think for about 15 percent of all breast cancer deaths in the United States. The number is even higher for cancer that's a little more rare, like head and neck cancers, esophageal cancer, alcohol is responsible for about 50 percent of those. And we don't talk about it in this country, even though it's one of the few things that people have some control over."

On alcohol's risks for women

"Women get kind of a double whammy. Alcohol can damage DNA, and it can really screw up your cells in a lot of ways. But for women, it also raises estrogen levels in the body, and in kind of the same way that hormone replacement therapy worked — it raises hormone levels. The cells multiply faster, and so there are more opportunities for tumors to develop, and the subtype that alcohol is most connected to is also the same kind of subtype that hormone replacement therapy caused. So they think that the mechanism there is very similar."

"We don't talk about it in this country, even though it's one of the few things that people have some control over."

Stephanie Mencimer, on links between alcohol and cancer

On how the alcohol industry reacted to research into these links

"The industry really fought the cancer message. That is something they really, really did not want plastered all over their products. They didn't want to be like the tobacco industry and have big warning labels to scare people, and so they launched a really interesting campaign.

"What they did was they changed the conversation, and they went out and they tried to pitch alcohol as something like a health tonic — especially the wine industry, went out and talked about how wine had been this great product for centuries, that enjoyed in moderation was considered something that would make you live longer. And over the years they've promoted alcohol as something that you should consume after your marathon, or your triathlon, and they've tried to market it as something that goes right along with a healthy lifestyle."

On whether she would have consumed less alcohol in hindsight

"I think so. I mean, I never smoked ... in those days, that was the bigger issue and we knew that smoking would give you lung cancer, and that smoking also was potentially addictive. And I certainly tell my daughter this, especially now that she's seen me go through breast cancer. So I feel like with younger people especially, it's really important to get that message to them, that this disease and its relationship to alcohol starts pretty early."

This article was originally published on May 10, 2018.

This segment aired on May 10, 2018.



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