Drinking alcohol may be especially risky for young women who have a strong family history of breast cancer, including having mothers, grandmothers or aunts with the disease, a new study suggests.
Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis examined data on more than 9,000 girls, all daughters of nurses, from 1996 (when they were aged 9 to 15) through 2007.
They focused on 67 participants who were later diagnosed between the ages of 18 and 27 with benign breast disease, a large class of conditions that can cause breast lumps or pain and can be a risk factor for breast cancer.
The researchers found that women who have a family history of breast cancer or breast disease were about twice as likely to develop both benign breast disease and breast cancer than women with no family history of the disease.
Risk of benign breast disease rose along with how much alcohol the young women consumed, according to the study.
In young women with no family history of breast disease, alcohol consumption wasn't associated with an increased chance of benign breast disease.
The study is published in the online issue of the Journal Cancer.
It's possible that young women who are especially prone to develop breast cancer can reduce their risk of benign breast disease by avoiding alcohol, researchers said in a university news release.
"The most common question we hear from women with a family history of breast disease is: 'How can we prevent breast cancer in our daughters?'" said senior study author Dr Graham Coldtiz, a professor of surgery. "This points to a strategy to lower risk – or avoid increasing risk – by limiting alcohol intake."
But Dr Anees Chagpar, director of The Breast Center at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven, questioned the findings, noting that the number of participants diagnosed with benign breast disease is small and the lack of required biopsies makes it hard to know whether many other women in the study also had the condition.
Spectrum of changes
"Benign breast disease is a spectrum of changes – from simple cysts and fibrocystic change, which do not significantly increase one's risk of developing breast cancer, all the way to atypical ductal hyperplasia and lobular carcinoma in situ, which – while not pre-malignant nor frankly cancerous – impose a significant increased risk," Chagpar said.
"Many women have fibrocystic change which we've come to realise is really quite ubiquitous and part of the spectrum of 'normal'," she said.
"Patients with such simple cysts should be reassured, and while vigilance in terms of screening is always advisable, they also need to know that this does not increase their risk of cancer."
In the big picture, however, "we know that alcohol increases breast cancer risk," she said. The question, she said, is whether it does that by increasing the risk of benign breast disease.
"I do think at-risk individuals should exercise moderation in their alcohol consumption, since excessive alcohol is known to increase one's risk of breast cancer," she said.
Three decades of follow-up
A study in the issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that as few as three alcoholic drinks a month was associated with a slightly increased risk of breast cancer.
In that study, which looked at data on 106,000 women, women who drank the equivalent of three to six glasses of wine were 15% more likely to develop breast cancer than women who never or rarely drank.
Women who consumed much more alcohol – about two glasses of wine or the equivalent beer/liquor a day – had a 51% increased chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer during nearly three decades of follow-up.
(HealthDay, November 2011)
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