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One in five breast cancers linked to alcohol

May 2011

New Cancer Council analysis published in the Medical Journal of Australia on 1 May 2011 shows the level of cancer incidence caused by alcohol in Australia is higher than previously thought, with more than 5000 new cases each year linked to long-term drinking.

It's been estimated that 22% of breast cancer cases in Australia are linked to alcohol consumption. It also factored in new evidence linking alcohol to bowel cancer in men.

Cancer Council Australia CEO and a co-author of the analysis, Professor Ian Olver, said community awareness of the links between alcohol and cancer should be raised so people could make more informed lifestyle choices to help minimise their cancer risk.

"We have known for some time that alcohol is a major risk factor for breast cancer, but only by applying international data to Australian drinking patterns were we able to estimate that more than one in five cases here are linked to alcohol," Professor Olver said.

"Factor in the new evidence on bowel cancer in men and the established links to cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus and liver, and alcohol is clearly one of the most carcinogenic products in common use."

Impact on breast cancer

Professor Olver said the impact on breast cancer was a particular concern, as there were few other steps women could take to minimise their risk.

"A lot of effort goes into raising breast cancer awareness, but how many Australian women are aware that reducing alcohol consumption is one of the best ways to reduce their breast cancer risk?" he said.

No health benefits

But hang on, what about those health benefits of wine we're always hearing about?

Unfortunately in terms of cancer, there is no health benefit to drinking alcohol and the old adage that it's good for your heart is also no longer supported by the Heart Foundation. In fact in its position statement on anti-oxidants, the Heart Foundation states it doesn't recommend drinking red wine for the prevention or treatment of cardio-vascular disease.

Professor Olver said the dose-response relationship meant the risk of alcohol-related cancer increased with every drink consumed.

"The more alcohol you consume over time, the higher your risk of developing an alcohol-related cancer.

"So if individuals do choose to drink, our advice is to do so in accordance with the National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines, which recommend no more than two standard drinks a day."

Nina knows about the connection, and after her mother's breast cancer diagnosis she made the decision to cut out alcohol. Read Nina's story on our blog.

Cancer Council has launched a new TV advertising campaign in Victoria to increase awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer. The two graphic ads, Spread and Stain , encourage people to limit the amount of alcohol they drink.

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