October 16, 2023

Alcohol and breast cancer

Breast cancer pink ribbon

There’s a direct link between drinking alcohol and breast cancer.1

In Australia, 5.8% of breast cancer diagnoses are attributable to alcohol.2

But, many people just don’t know the link.

An Australian breast screening service found only 20% of women knew that alcohol was a risk factor for breast cancer.3

And only 1 in 5 people attending a breast screening service in the UK knew about the risk.4 While in the US, awareness that alcohol is a cancer risk factor is lowest for breast cancer.5

Alcohol is also a significant risk factor for seven other types of cancer.

Even though alcohol is the most used drug in Australia, only half of Australians are aware drinking can cause cancer.6, 7

Conflicting messages in the media can confuse people when it comes to understanding alcohol’s impact on health.8

Like any other product, knowing the risks of alcohol can help people make informed decisions.

But there are other factors that influence our decision-making when it comes to drinking, including:

  • exposure to advertising and marketing of alcohol
  • cultural norms and expectations around drinking
  • availability and accessibility of alcohol.9

For the individual, choosing to drink – or not - can also be influenced by:

  • experiences of discrimination
  • stress levels
  • experiencing mental ill health
  • barriers to accessing healthy coping strategies 9, 10

Breast cancer awareness campaigns and the alcohol industry

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, an opportunity to highlight the importance of prevention and research into breast cancer.

The iconic pink ribbon, and colour pink, are widely used in campaigns, such as:

For many, the pink ribbon symbolises support and solidarity, hope for a cure, and healthy living.

But the colour pink, and pink ribbons, are also misleadingly used by companies that sell products linked to cancer.11

Alcohol industry companies do this by:

  • adding the pink ribbon, or the colour pink, to products and advertisements
  • selling breast cancer awareness merchandise
  • partnering with breast cancer charities
  • pledging an amount per product sold towards breast cancer charities.

Because the famous pink ribbon isn’t ‘owned’ or regulated, any company can use it - even if they make or sell cancer-causing products.11

This kind of marketing (called pink-washing) is harmful because it:

  • promotes cancer-causing products
  • exploits customers’ goodwill
  • spreads misinformation about breast cancer risk factors
  • is unsettling and frustrating for those directly affected by breast cancer.12

Previously, the alcohol industry has been criticised for using pink-washing marketing tactics around International Women’s Day and Dry July.

Campaigns like Pink is not the problem and Think Before You Pink have called out the industries linking to cancer by pink-washing. These campaigns encourage consumers to think critically before they buy.

Breast cancer in Australia

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Australia for females.13

An estimated 20,500 people assigned female at birth and 217 people assigned male at birth will be diagnosed in 2023.

Every year, we’re understanding more about the risk factors for cancer.

These risk factors can include:

  • family history and genetics
  • personal factors (such as age, height and breast density)
  • reproductive factors
  • individual’s lifestyle (including level of drinking)
  • medical history (previous experience of cancer, certain treatments, and medications)
  • environmental factors.14

How to reduce breast cancer risk

A breast screen is the best way to detect breast cancer early, and also improve treatment outcomes.15 Those aged 50 and over can have their free breast cancer screening every two years.

If you’re under 50 and concerned about breast cancer, you can still get screened – just talk to your doctor.

For more information, visit the Cancer Council’s page on breast cancer screening.

If you are trans or gender diverse, you can speak with your doctor to find out if breast screening might be beneficial for you.

Although breast cancer mostly affects those 50 and over, around three women under 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer every day.16

Risk factors for under 40s include:

  • family history and genetic factors
  • hormonal factors
  • drinking.17

You can reduce your risk of breast cancer by:

  • stopping or reducing your drinking
  • doing regular physical exercise.18

Check out this Cancer Council article on how to be breast aware – you don’t need to be an expert to check for signs.

More info

  1. Freudenheim JL. Alcohol's Effects on Breast Cancer in Women. Alcohol research: current reviews [Internet]. 2020 [04.09.2023]; 40(2):[11 p.].
  2. Pandeya N, Wilson LF, Webb PM, Neale RE, Bain CJ, Whiteman DC. Cancers in Australia in 2010 attributable to the consumption of alcohol. Aust N Z J Public Health [Internet]. 2015 [16.10.2023]; 39(5):[408-13 pp.].
  3. Grigg J, Manning V, Lockie D, Giles M, Bell RJ, Stragalinos P, et al. A brief intervention for improving alcohol literacy and reducing harmful alcohol use by women attending a breast screening service: a randomised controlled trial. Medical Journal of Australia [Internet]. 2023 [04.09.2023]; 218(11):[511-9 pp.].
  4. Sinclair J, McCann M, Sheldon E, Gordon I, Brierley-Jones L, Copson E. The acceptability of addressing alcohol consumption as a modifiable risk factor for breast cancer: a mixed method study within breast screening services and symptomatic breast clinics.BMJ Open [Internet]. 2019 [11.09.2023]; 9(6):[e027371 p.].
  5. Calvert CM, Toomey T, Jones-Webb R. Are people aware of the link between alcohol and different types of Cancer? BMC Public Health [Internet]. 2021 [11.09.2023]; 21(1):[NA p.].
  6. Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE). Annual Alcohol Poll 2020 [11.09.2023].
  7. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Alcohol, tobacco & other drugs in Australia 2023 [11.09.2023].
  8. Amy R, Kristen F, Belinda L, Emma RM, Samantha B, Paul RW. How Are the Links between Alcohol Consumption and Breast Cancer Portrayed in Australian Newspapers?: A Paired Thematic and Framing Media Analysis2021 [04.09.2023]; 18(7657):[7657 p.].
  9. Sudhinaraset M, Wigglesworth C, Takeuchi DT. Social and Cultural Contexts of Alcohol Use. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews [Internet]. 2016 [4.09.2023]; 38(1):[35-45 pp.].
  10. Ward PR, Foley K, Meyer SB, Wilson C, Warin M, Batchelor S, et al. Place of alcohol in the 'wellness toolkits' of midlife women in different social classes: A qualitative study in South Australia.Sociology of health & illness [Internet]. 2022 [04.09.2023]; 44(2):[488-507 pp.].
  11. Agostino C, Middlemost R. The Impact of Femvertising on Pink Breast Cancer Products in Australia 2022 [11.09.2023]. In: The cultural politics of femvertising: selling empowerment [Internet]. Palgrave Macmillan.
  12. Taylor KA, Knibb JN. Don't give US pink ribbons and skinny girls: Breast cancer survivors' evaluations of cancer advertising. Health Marketing Quarterly [Internet]. 2019 [11.09.2023]; 36(3):[186-202 pp.].
  13. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Overview of cancer in Australia, 2023 2023 [04.09.2023].
  14. Cancer Australia. Risk Factors 2022 [11.09.2023].
  15. Cancer Council. A guide to: Breast screening 2022 [11.09.2023].
  16. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Cancer in Australia 2021 [04.09.2023].
  17. Cancer Australia. Breast Cancer in Young Women 2022 [11.09.2023].
  18. Cancer Australia. Protective Factors 2022 [11.09.2023].

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