Alcohol and fat link to breast cancer

Body fatness and alcohol consumption are the leading preventable causes of breast cancer in Australian women, a new study in 200,000 women has found.

Maintaining a healthy weight and not consuming alcohol regularly could help prevent thousands of breast cancer cases, and the finding from the big data study by UNSW researchers could help inform future cancer control strategies.

The large collaborative study led by UNSW’s Centre for Big Data Research in Health was published in the International Journal of Cancer. It pooled six Australian cohort studies including over 200,000 women and evaluated what proportion of pre-menopausal and post-menopausal breast cancers could be prevented by modifying current behaviours.

“We found that current levels of overweight and obesity are responsible for the largest proportion of preventable future breast cancers – more specifically, 17,500 or 13 per cent of breast cancers in the next decade,” study author Dr Maarit Laaksonen said.

“Regular alcohol consumption is the second largest contributor – 13 per cent of pre-menopausal and 6 per cent of post-menopausal breast cancers. That’s 11,600 cases over the next 10 years attributable to consuming alcohol regularly.”

This was the first time that regular alcohol consumption was shown as the leading modifiable cause of breast cancer burden for pre-menopausal women.

Although the current Australian recommendation is to not drink more than two alcoholic drinks per day on average, the study found that risk of breast cancer increased with an average consumption of just one alcoholic drink per day.  More than half of Australian women currently report drinking alcohol regularly, and three in five Australian women are overweight or obese.

The researchers also found current use of menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) to explain 7 per cent of postmenopausal breast cancers, with over 90 per cent of this burden explained by a long-term use of at least 5 years. Similarly, the researchers found current long-term use of oral contraceptives to explain 7 per cent of pre-menopausal breast cancers.

“Our findings support the current Australian and international recommendations of using MHT for the shortest duration possible, and only to alleviate menopausal symptoms, not for the prevention of chronic disease,” Dr Laaksonen said.

“When it comes to oral contraception, it is not recommended that women restrict their use of OCs – the latest position statement from Cancer Council says that over the course of a woman’s lifetime, the net effect of OCs is actually cancer-protective, as they provide long-term protection against endometrial and ovarian cancers, meaning that the potential benefits, including reproductive benefits, outweigh the harms.”

Jointly, these behavioural and hormonal factors explain about one in five breast cancers, amounting to 37,000 breast cancers over the next 10 years.

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