Even Light Drinking Increases Risk of Breast Cancer

Researchers estimate nearly 18.8 percent of global breast cancer cases and nearly 17.5 percent of deaths in 2012 were among women who were light drinkers. The findings address a long-standing debate on whether light alcohol consumption may be linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Find out more about what research suggests and the impact of such findings for women.


Alcohol Links to Cancer

The link between alcohol consumption and cancer was officially declared in 1987 when a working group linked to the World Health Organization (WHO) listed cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, esophagus and liver as ‘causally related to consumption of alcoholic beverages.’ Many studies since have found links between alcohol consumption and breast or other cancers. The authors also note as recently as 2014, studies revealed evidence of alcohol raising the risk of breast cancer but light drinking and links to cancer have been more questionable.


Dose-response Relationship

The first part of a study looking at the link between light drinking and cancer summarized three biological ways alcohol affects the risk of breast cancer:

  • Changes to hormone levels
  • How body produces cancer-causing compounds changes when metabolizes alcohol
  • How body blocks a key metabolic pathway known as the ‘one-carbon metabolism pathway’

Researchers searched to establish the risk relationship between alcohol consumption (light drinking) and the risk of breast cancer. All but two of 15 meta-analyses that met researchers’ criteria demonstrated a dose-response relationship meaning even light alcohol drinkers are at a higher risk for breast cancer than non-drinkers. It is estimated the impact of the findings demonstrate nearly 144,000 breast cancer cases and 38,000 breast cancer deaths in 2012 were caused by alcohol use. In 18.8 percent of cases and 17.5 percent of deaths, the women were light drinkers.



Researchers found the data on breast cancer linked to light alcohol consumption on the Global Information System on Alcohol and Health (GISAH). According to WHO, the harmful use of alcohol kills 3.3 million people worldwide each year with 60 different diseases with alcohol featured as a significant cause. The global consumption of alcoholic drinks in 2010 was equal to 6.2 liters of pure alcohol per person aged 15 and older. Drinking is encouraged only in moderation (up to 1 drink per day for women, 2 per day for men). It is not recommended individuals who do not drink start drinking for any reason. Due to the presence of a strong relationship between alcohol consumption and breast cancer, it is best to err on the side of caution and drink only on occasion or quit altogether.


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