Alcohol, weight drive needed to beat breast cancer

A DRIVE to prevent breast cancer by highlighting the risks caused by being overweight and drinking alcohol is needed to tackle the disease, a leading expert has warned.
The impact of alcohol on breast cancer risk must be more widely publicised, say experts. Picture: TSPLThe impact of alcohol on breast cancer risk must be more widely publicised, say experts. Picture: TSPL
The impact of alcohol on breast cancer risk must be more widely publicised, say experts. Picture: TSPL

Professor David Cameron, clinical director of the Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre, said Scotland and the rest of the world faced big challenges in treating a growing number of breast cancer cases, despite better treatments which have boosted survival rates.

Speaking ahead of the European Breast Cancer Conference (EBCC), in Glasgow this month, Cameron said preventing women developing the disease in the first place was key to tackling the rising burden, along with combating health inequalities.

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Other experts warned that messages about how lifestyle factors can increase the risk of breast cancer may not have been voiced as strongly as they could, due to concerns that women with the disease may feel they are to blame for their condition.

Scotland has seen rates of breast cancer surge by 14 per cent in the last decade alone, with more than 4,500 cases diagnosed each year and 1,000 deaths annually.

Cameron, a previous chairman of the EBCC, said dealing with the rise in cancer cases was one of the biggest challenges faced by health services, with more focus needed on how the disease can be prevented.

“It is a high volume disease sadly, and we haven’t really got our heads around prevention,” he told Scotland on Sunday.

“That is a very complicated subject. We know some of the things you need to do, but most women wouldn’t want to live the lifestyle that would reduce their risk of breast cancer. Weight and alcohol intake are the more manageable methods, but there are also things like starting your family in your early 20s.

“Reproductive history, the timing of when you have your children, is a much more fundamental change. But alcohol and weight are things we can tackle.”

Research suggests the risk of breast cancer increases from just one drink a day, while other work shows up to 15 per cent of cases are caused by obesity.

Annie Anderson, co-director of the Scottish Cancer Prevention Network, said there was a real need for health services to give women lifestyle advice about how they can reduce their risk of breast cancer, which was currently being denied to them due to lack of time or an unwillingness to broach the subject.

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“There is a real tension between not trying to make women feel guilty and withholding information,” she said.

James Jopling, Scotland director for Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said the link between smoking and lung cancer was well established, but the same had not yet been achieved in terms of lifestyle risks for breast cancer and other forms of the disease. “Charities have found it difficult to put that message across. There are also challenges for medical professionals,” he said.

How to reduce the risk

Carrying too much weight can increase the risk of developing breast cancer, particularly for women who gain weight as adults. The major source of oestrogen for post-menopausal woman is fat tissue and it is thought this causes the heightened risk. Women who are overweight are advised to lose between 5 and 10 per cent of their weight over six months, while eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

Exercise is also important with research suggesting as little as 75 minutes of brisk walking each week can have a positive effect. Research indicates that those

who have two or more alcoholic drinks a day have a about one-and-a-half times the risk of developing breast cancer compared to women who don’t drink at all.

Studies have shown that women who breastfeed are statistically less likely to develop breast cancer than those who do not. It could be because women do not ovulate as regularly while they are breastfeeding and their oestrogen levels remain stable.

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