Four out of five women do not realise drinking alcohol could raise their risk of breast cancer, according to research.
A majority of women surveyed at a breast screening clinic were unaware of the link and many staff were also in the dark about it.
Experts have warned alcohol’s danger must be better understood because it may cause as many as one in 10 cases of the UK’s most common cancer.
And although only 20 per cent of women knew alcohol was a cancer risk factor, around two thirds of them admitted drinking regularly.
Both patients and staff agreed the issue should be discussed more but both groups said they were worried about ‘blaming’ patients for drinking or ‘patronising’ them.
In a survey of 238 people at a breast care clinic in England, only around 20 per cent of women were aware alcohol could raise their risk of breast cancer (stock image)
Researchers from the University of Southampton surveyed 238 people involved in the breast cancer diagnosis process.
They included 103 women attending breast clinics to talk about symptoms, 102 women going for screening, and 33 NHS staff at a breast care centre.
Some 16 per cent of the screening group and 23 per cent of the clinic group knew that alcohol was a risk factor for cancer.
And only 52 per cent of the clinical staff could identify the link between the two.
Booze is actually thought to be to blame for between five and 11 per cent of all breast cancer cases, the researchers warned.
Around 55,000 cases of the disease are diagnosed every year in the UK, making up around 15 per cent of all cancer diagnoses. In the US, the figure is around the 270,000 mark.
HOW DOES ALCOHOL CAUSE BREAST CANCER?
Alcohol may cause breast cancer because one of its effects on the body is leading it to produce more of the hormone oestrogen.
Oestrogen, best known as the female sex hormone, is also a fuel for breast cancer tumours and makes them grow faster.
Alcohol also damages DNA because it is broken down into a chemical called acetaldehyde, which is toxic and is found in tobacco smoke.
This DNA damage increases the risk of cells becoming corrupted and reproducing uncontrollably to build a tumour – further raising the chance of developing an already very common cancer.
Research has also found alcohol could aid the spread of cancer which has already started – known as metastasis – by stimulating the movement of cells around the body.
And alcohol also blocks the body’s absorption of folate, a type of vitamin which is vital for the production of DNA and has been found to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Cancer Research UK says if 1,000 women drink between three and six units per day (one or two large glasses of wine), there is likely to be 27 extra cases of cancer than in a teetotal group.
Alcohol can increase breast cancer risk by raising levels of hormones which accelerate tumours or by releasing DNA-damaging chemicals.
Doing more to warn people about the link between drink and cancer could prevent cancers and save lives, said the researchers, led by Professor Julia Sinclair.
They said: ‘Over 20 per cent of women aged 45 to 64 reportedly drink more than 14 units per week.
‘So any intervention to reduce [alcohol] consumption could have a significant influence on breast cancer rates, as well as help to manage the side effects of treatment and improve the overall health of survivors.’
People in the survey were open to the idea of having information sessions when they went for screening or meetings with nurses or doctors.
But both patients and staff were worried about causing offence by blaming people for drinking so much they damaged their health.
Patients may also feel patronised, they warned, if they were told how to look after themselves.
In their study the researchers wrote: ‘Both staff and clinic attendees showed [mixed feelings] about discussing alcohol, concerned about it being taken as stigmatising or blaming women’.
And they added: ‘In addition to time, use of additional resources and potential cause for anxiety the staff group also mentioned contributing to “the worried well” culture, time inefficiencies and fears about it being seen as “blaming” or “patronising” as potential disadvantages’.
Eluned Hughes, Public Health Specialist at Breast Cancer Care and Breast Cancer Now, said many women aren’t aware that drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer.
She said: ‘Breast cancer risk is affected by a combination of our genes, lifestyle choices and events throughout life, and there is never one single cause of the disease. But, with many contributing factors, it’s vital we support more women to do what they can to help shift the odds in their favour.
‘We need to find ways to support people to drink less without making anyone feel blamed or judged.
‘It’s encouraging that this study suggests that the Breast Screening Programme could offer a new opportunity for women and healthcare professionals to discuss possible risk-reducing steps.’
Among a group of 1,000 women drinking more than six units of alcohol per day (equal to two large glasses of wine), the number of breast cancer cases could be expected to be around 60 per cent higher, according to Cancer Research UK
Nearly a third of women said they would be more likely to attend a screening appointment if they knew they would get advice on how to try and avoid cancer.
The study also found that less than a third of people (30 per cent) realised being fat raised their risk of breast cancer, and only half correctly identified smoking tobacco as a risk factor.
The research was published in the journal BMJ Open.