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Q&A: Alcohol and Breast Cancer

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Q: I wanted to ask your opinion on the recent research that shows drinking even moderately can raise a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer by 30 percent. I enjoy my nightly wine, and this new information really has me wondering.

A: When you’ve been in practice as long as I have, you can’t help rolling your eyes when a study like this gets published. Even when I was a kid, I remember my mother tossing out all the cans of cranberry sauce three days before Thanksgiving because of an alleged “link” (long disproved) between cranberries and cancer.

No more than two months earlier than the study you refer to, a study in a different journal was published showing that moderate alcohol intake (two glasses of wine for women, three for men) dramatically reduced “all cause” (overall) mortality (death) from heart disease, cancer, strokes, etc.

Studies like the one you read–in which one specific “something” causes a specific disease–get published, frighten everybody, and then get re-examined and with different conclusions. The result is that everyone, doctors included, get confused.

Look at it this way: after all these years, we really don’t know for certain exactly what causes cancer of any kind. Even the biggest villain of them all, tobacco, doesn’t cause lung cancer in all smokers.

Now, concerning wine. Breast cancer certainly occurs in non-drinkers (as well as vegetarians, soybean eaters, joggers, the morally righteous, and the nicest people you know). It’s not epidemic in wine drinking countries, like France, Italy, and Spain. If wine is a risk factor, thus far it is a relatively minor one.

The only suggestion I’ll make is this: if the women in your family are very breast cancer prone, reduce your wine intake to 2-3 glasses a week.

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