Drinking alcohol not likely to increase breast cancer survivor’s risk of recurrence

OAKLAND, Calif. — Drinking alcohol has long been linked to breast cancer, so it makes sense that breast cancer survivors would be hesitant to ever pick up a glass again. However, researchers from Kaiser Permanente have found that alcohol isn’t likely to increase the risk of breast cancer recurrence.

This work, the largest prospective study to date assessing short-term alcohol use after breast cancer, found that the consumption of alcohol does not display an association with either an increased risk of breast cancer recurrence or death from the disease. Researchers say oncologists may finally have an answer to one of the most common questions among breast cancer survivors: “Is it safe to drink alcohol?”

“We know that women who drink alcohol are at increased risk of developing breast cancer and that the risk increases as alcohol use increases,” says lead author Marilyn Kwan, PhD, a research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research, in a media release. “For this reason, we thought that drinking alcohol after a breast cancer diagnosis could increase the risk of a cancer recurrence. But our study found that, overall, drinking alcohol after a breast cancer diagnosis does not impact a patient’s prognosis.”

Breast cancer ribbon
(Credit: Anna Tarazevich from Pexels)

Prior research that looked at alcohol use and breast cancer had reached conflicting results. Moreover, most of those projects focused on alcohol use prior to a patient’s breast cancer diagnosis. Consequently, there are no guidelines today for breast cancer survivors when it comes to how to navigate alcohol use. Guidelines for reducing breast cancer risk recommend that women have no more than one alcoholic drink daily.

For this latest analysis, study authors used data provided by the Pathways Study, a prospective study of over 4,500 women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer between 2005 and 2013 at Kaiser Permanente Northern California. The study is one of the largest in the U.S. to follow breast cancer survivors and track the relationship between lifestyle changes and outcomes. 

“After a breast cancer diagnosis, patients are often focused on making lifestyle changes that could help them live longer,” concludes senior author Lawrence H. Kushi, ScD, a research scientist at the Division of Research who co-leads the Pathways Study. “Many breast cancer patients have questions about whether drinking alcoholic beverages could lead to breast cancer recurrence. The aim of our study is to provide breast cancer survivors and their physicians with information that can help them make decisions that will improve both their quantity and quality of life.”

The study included over 3,600 women who completed a survey covering their drinking habits upon entering the Pathways Study at the time of their diagnosis, and then once more six months later. Next, over the following 11 years, 524 women had a breast cancer recurrence and 834 women died; 369 from breast cancer, 314 from cardiovascular disease, and 151 from other health issues.

In conclusion, the research team hopes their findings can help clinicians of all kinds provide more accurate information to breast cancer survivors interested in making lifestyle changes that can improve health outcomes.

The study is published in the journal Cancer.

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