Alcohol and Breast Cancer: Reconciling Epidemiological and Molecular Data

  • Samir ZakhariEmail author
  • Jan B. Hoek
Conference paper
Part of the Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology book series (AEMB, volume 815)


Breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in women worldwide. Epidemiological studies have suggested a possible causative role of alcohol consumption as a risk factor for breast cancer. However, such conclusions should be interpreted with considerable caution for several reasons. While epidemiological studies can help identify the roots of health problems and disease incidence in a community, they are by necessity associative and cannot determine cause and effect relationships. In addition, all these studies rely on self-reporting to determine the amount and type of alcoholic beverage consumed, which introduces recall bias. This is documented in a recent study which stated that the apparent increased risk of cancer among light-moderate drinkers may be “substantially due to underreporting of intake.” Another meta-analysis about alcohol and breast cancer declared “the modest size of the association and variation in results across studies leave the causal role of alcohol in question.” Furthermore, breast cancer develops over decades; thus, correlations between alcohol consumption and breast cancer cannot be determined in epidemiological studies with windows of alcohol exposure that captures current or recent alcohol intake, after clinical diagnosis.

Numerous risk factors are involved in breast carcinogenesis; some are genetic and beyond the control of a woman; others are influenced by lifestyle factors. Breast cancer is a heterogeneous and polygenic disease which is further influenced by epigenetic mechanisms that affect the transciptomes, proteomes and metabolomes, and ultimately breast cancer evolution. Environmental factors add another layer of complexity by their interactions with the susceptibility genes for breast cancer and metabolic diseases. The current state-of-knowledge about alcohol and breast cancer association is ambiguous and confusing to both a woman and her physician. Confronting the huge global breast cancer issue should be addressed by sound science.

It is advised that women with or without a high risk for breast cancer should avoid overconsumption of alcohol and should consult with their physician about risk factors involved in breast cancer. Since studies associating moderate alcohol consumption and breast cancer are contradictory, a woman and her physician should weigh the risks and benefits of moderate alcohol consumption.


Breast cancer Epidemiology Alcohol Acetaldehyde Reactive oxygen species Estrogen Folate Metabolism Epigenetics Alcohol dehydrogenase Aldehyde dehydrogenase BRCA1 BRCA2 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Former Director, Division of Metabolism and Health EffectsNIAAA, NIHBethesdaUSA
  2. 2.SVP, ScienceDISCUSWashingtonUSA
  3. 3.Department of Pathology, Anatomy and Cell BiologyThomas Jefferson UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA

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