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Alcohol and Health

Alcohol and Breast Cancer Risk: What's the Connection?

June 23, 2023
21 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 23, 2023
21 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 23, 2023
21 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 23, 2023
21 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 23, 2023
21 min read

We all know someone who’s been affected by breast cancer — a family member, a coworker, or a friend of a friend. It's a topic that's never far from our minds. As many as 1 in 8 women will experience it at some point, and it accounts for over 12% of new cancer cases diagnosed around the globe every year. In the U.S. alone, there are currently around 4 million women with a history of breast cancer

However, it's not all doom and gloom. The more we understand about breast cancer and its risk factors, the more empowered we are to take control of our health.

One connection that’s often overlooked is the link between breast cancer risk and alcohol. There's been a flurry of scientific research in this area in the last few decades, and we're here to make sense of it all.

Part 1: Breast Cancer at a Glance

Breast cancer (like all cancers) begins when cells in the breast start growing in an uncontrolled way. These rogue cells can band together to form a lump or tumor and might even spread to other parts of the body if left unchecked. 

Breast cancer comes in two major types:

  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). This one is a non-invasive cancer — the cells are contained within the milk ducts and haven't ventured out into the breast tissue.
  • Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC). This is the more common type. Here, the cells have left the ducts and are attacking nearby breast tissue.

Risk Factors

While the exact "why" behind many cancers is a mystery, certain factors make breast cancer more likely.

  • Being female. Although breast cancer in men is not unheard of, simply being a woman puts us at greater risk.
  • Age. The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age.
  • Family history. Women with close relatives (such as a mother or sister) who've had breast cancer have a higher risk.
  • Genetics. Carriers of mutations in certain genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, are more susceptible.
  • Radiation exposure. Those who've had radiation treatments to the chest area as children or young adults are at a higher risk.
  • Menstrual history. Early menarche or late menopause (both of which extend the years of menstruation) can elevate risk.
  • Childbirth. Women who have never had children or who had them after age 30 may have an increased risk.
  • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Using combined hormone therapy can increase the chances of the disease (more on this later).

Spotting It Early

Breast cancer isn't about who you are or where you live — women all over the globe face it, and it's the leading cancer among women. However, with knowledge and support, we can face it head-on.

Catching breast cancer early makes a world of difference, and there are several ways to do so.

  • Mammograms. Think of them as routine maintenance for your breasts — catching little issues before they become big problems.
  • Self-exams. It's all about getting to know yourself and noticing if something feels "off."
  • Doctor visits. Having a healthcare professional check now and then offers another layer of reassurance.

Part 2: Breast Cancer Awareness

Because of its impact on women and families around the world, breast cancer awareness has become a global movement. Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM), observed every October, was established in the United States in 1985 as a partnership between the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which produced several breast cancer drugs, and various cancer charities and organizations.

The primary aim of this initiative was two-fold:

  • To promote mammography as the most effective tool in the fight against breast cancer.
  • To raise awareness of the disease, emphasizing early detection, treatment, and the importance of regular self-exams.

The Pink Ribbon Symbol

While Breast Cancer Awareness Month started in the mid-80s, the pink ribbon symbol for breast cancer awareness came onto the scene a few years later, when an activist named Charlotte Haley began making peach-colored ribbons in her home. She distributed the ribbons with cards that read, "The National Cancer Institute's annual budget is $1.8 billion, with only 5% going to cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon."

In 1991, the Susan G. Komen Foundation first handed out pink ribbons at a New York City race for breast cancer survivors — an event that turned the pink ribbon into the symbol we all recognize today. By 1992, several major breast cancer charities had officially adopted it as the symbol for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Growing Global Recognition

From its beginnings in the United States, Breast Cancer Awareness Month rapidly gained traction  around the world. Today, it’s more than just a month on the calendar — it’s a global movement. Advancements in medical science and the power of social media have expanded the scope and reach of the awareness campaigns. Personal stories of battles fought and won, tributes to those lost, and the unwavering commitment of organizations and advocates have helped humanize the cause.

Numerous countries worldwide now recognize October as a month dedicated to breast cancer awareness, research, fundraising, and community events. Here are just a few examples:

United Kingdom:

  • Wear It Pink Day. People across the UK wear pink clothing and accessories to show their support while raising funds for breast cancer research.
  • Pink ribbon walks. Hosted in various scenic locations, these walks raise funds and unite communities.


  • Pink Ribbon Breakfast. Activists and organizations host fundraising breakfasts.
  • Pink Sports Day. Local sports teams — from grassroots to professional — wear pink during matches to raise awareness and funds.


  • Pink illumination of monuments. Iconic structures, like the Taj Mahal or Qutub Minar, are illuminated in pink.
  • Awareness drives. Various NGOs organize drives in rural areas to educate women about early detection and self-exams.

South Africa:

  • Pink Day Cricket Match. The South African cricket team and their opponents wear pink kits in a dedicated match to raise awareness.
  • Pink Trees for Pauline. Supporters wrap trees in pink fabric to create awareness and raise funds.



  • CIBC Run for the Cure. In this large-scale event, communities come together to participate in runs and walks to raise funds.
  • Mammography campaigns. Efforts to promote and provide accessible mammography screenings intensify during this month.


  • Pink Ribbon Festival. This annual event includes seminars and celebrity appearances to raise breast cancer awareness.
  • Pink Ribbon Angel Walk. Participants walk to show solidarity and support, often wearing angel wings.

Part 3: The Role of Alcohol

But what does an occasional glass of wine have to do with breast cancer? It's a valid question, and we've got some science-based answers.

Over the years, the evidence has become clear and strong: the more alcohol we consume, the higher our risk of breast cancer.

Recent research has brought more insight into this connection, with several studies worldwide confirming the link between alcohol and breast cancer. Scientists report that even light to moderate drinking — up to one drink per day — significantly increased the chances of developing the disease. This risk also appears to be cumulative: the more alcohol we drink over our lifetime, the higher our risk becomes.

The First Culprit: Acetaldehyde

When we drink, our bodies convert it into a chemical called acetaldehyde — a potent carcinogen that can damage our DNA and proteins, leading to cancerous changes in cells. While our liver enzymes further break down acetaldehyde into non-toxic substances, high levels of alcohol consumption can lead to a buildup of acetaldehyde, which the liver can't process quickly enough.

This buildup of acetaldehyde may play a crucial role in the development of cancer cells. Acetaldehyde can bind to proteins and DNA in cells, causing mutations that can lead to cancer. This DNA damage is cumulative: the more alcohol we consume over time, the greater the potential for harm and the increased risk of developing cancer.

Breast tissue is particularly sensitive to this process, which explains why the risk of breast cancer is especially high. 

The Hormone Connection: Alcohol and Estrogen

There's another angle to consider as well. Alcohol can increase levels of estrogen and other hormones associated with breast cancer. Let’s explore this connection in more detail.

Estrogen: A Closer Look

Hormones are chemical messengers produced by our endocrine glands. They travel through our bloodstream, instructing tissues and organs on what to do in our bodies. Estrogen, a primary female sex hormone, plays a vital role in a woman's reproductive cycle and overall health.

It’s responsible for the growth and development of female sexual characteristics, including the breasts. Estrogen spikes during the menstrual cycle have been linked to breast cell proliferation. While this is a natural process, an overexposure or prolonged exposure to estrogen can increase the risk of breast cancer by increasing cell division and raising the chance of DNA mutations.

Many breast cancers are estrogen-receptor-positive: they have receptors for estrogen. When estrogen binds to these receptors, it can stimulate the cancer to grow. This is why hormone therapies that reduce the body's estrogen levels or block estrogen from binding to its receptors are often used to treat these types of breast cancer.

Alcohol's Effect on Estrogen

Alcohol can increase levels of estrogen in the body in different ways:

  • Altered liver function. The liver metabolizes both alcohol and estrogen. When alcohol is consumed, the liver prioritizes breaking it down, which can lead to delays in estrogen metabolism, causing its levels to rise.
  • Increased aromatase activity. Aromatase is an enzyme responsible for converting androgens (another type of hormone) to estrogen. Drinking can stimulate aromatase activity, increasing estrogen production as a result.

In breast cancers that are estrogen-receptor-positive, the presence of the hormone can also accelerate tumor growth. Since alcohol increases estrogen levels, it can indirectly promote the growth of these estrogen-sensitive tumors.

Alcohol's Influence on Other Hormones

While estrogen is a primary concern, alcohol also affects other hormones that can indirectly influence breast cancer risk:

The Big Picture

While all of this might sound alarming, let's put these findings in perspective. It's important to remember that while alcohol influences hormone levels, not everyone who drinks will develop breast cancer (just as not everyone who doesn’t drink is guaranteed to not get it). In the end, this is about risk — not certainty — and factors like genetics, overall health, and other lifestyle choices all play a role. Alcohol is just one piece of the puzzle.

Still, the research is clear: this is one puzzle piece we shouldn’t ignore! The good news is that this is also a piece we have some control over.

Our Choices and Their Impact

By understanding the connection between alcohol and breast cancer, we can balance our choices to maximize our health and enjoyment of life. When it comes to reducing our risk of breast cancer, so much power is in our hands. We might not be able to change our genes, but our lifestyle choices can have a big impact on our health. Let's explore what we actually can control. 

  • Mindful drinking. If we do choose to drink, moderation is key. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink per day for women. However, even this level of consumption may slightly increase risk.
  • Declare alcohol-free days. Incorporating days when we consciously choose not to drink can give our bodies a chance to recover. Plus, it helps to break any habit loops that we might have fallen into.
  • Healthier alternatives. Cutting back on alcohol doesn't have to mean missing out on social gatherings or enjoyable evenings. There are plenty of non-alcoholic options available, from sophisticated mocktails to flavorful sparkling waters, herbal teas, and alcohol-free wines and beers.
  • Regular exercise. Keeping active helps maintain a healthy weight, which reduces our risk of breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity activity each week.
  • A balanced diet. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains can help us maintain a healthy weight and provide our bodies with cancer-fighting nutrients.
  • Regular screenings. Early detection is crucial to treat and beat breast cancer. Regular mammograms and self-examinations are essential.
  • Quit smoking. We all know smoking is harmful. Research shows it also increases breast cancer risk.
  • Limit hormone therapy. Long-term use and high doses of hormone therapy for menopause symptoms can increase the risk of breast cancer. If we're taking these, it might be worth having a chat with our healthcare provider about the risk and alternatives.

By incorporating these steps into our routine, we're not just reducing our risk of breast cancer — we're also boosting our overall health, vitality, and well-being. It's all about making choices that respect and nurture our bodies.

Moving Forward

All in all, the journey to reduce our risk of breast cancer is one of awareness, informed decisions, and empowerment. Despite how it feels at times, we’re not alone. We're part of a community, a collective of strong individuals making daily decisions to promote our health. Every small choice matters. Every step we take towards healthier habits, like reducing our alcohol intake, is a step towards reducing our breast cancer risk!

Summary FAQs

1. What's the link between alcohol and breast cancer risk?

Research indicates that the more alcohol we consume, the higher our risk of breast cancer becomes. Even light to moderate drinkers, having up to one drink per day, show an increased risk.

2. How does alcohol increase the risk?

When we consume alcohol, it's converted into acetaldehyde, a chemical that can damage our DNA and proteins, leading to potential cancerous changes in cells. Additionally, alcohol can raise levels of estrogen and other hormones, which might further elevate the risk.

3. Is breast cancer always due to lifestyle choices like drinking?

No, breast cancer is influenced by a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Alcohol is just one risk factor among many.

4. What's considered "moderate" drinking, and is it safe?

The CDC defines moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women. However, even at this level, there may be a slight increase in breast cancer risk.

5. Are there other lifestyle choices that can impact breast cancer risk?

Yes. Apart from alcohol consumption, factors like maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise, a balanced diet, quitting smoking, and being cautious with long-term hormone therapy can play a role in breast cancer risk.

6. How can we reduce our risk of breast cancer?

Embrace mindful drinking, incorporate alcohol-free days, choose non-alcoholic beverages, maintain regular exercise, eat a balanced diet, undergo regular screenings, avoid smoking, and discuss hormone therapies with your healthcare provider.

7. Why is early detection crucial for breast cancer?

Early detection significantly improves outcomes and survival rates for breast cancer patients. Regular mammograms and self-examinations are vital tools in spotting the disease in its initial stages.

Ready To Take Charge of Your Health? Reframe Can Help!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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