Cancer risk high in young female drinkers

Women who drink alcohol between puberty and their first pregnancy are putting themselves at a greater risk of breast cancer, a public health expert has warned.

Triona McCarthy said young women should be discouraged from drinking alcohol because their breast tissue was more vulnerable.

Dr McCarthy, who works with the National Cancer Control programme, spoke at a conference in Dublin yesterday about the increasing toll alcohol is taking on Irish women.

The consultant in public health medicine referred to a US study that examined the breast cancer risk for more than 91,000 women who had no cancer history when the 10-year study began in 1991.

The researchers found more than 1,600 cases of breast cancer and 970 diagnoses of benign breast disease during the study period.

Drinking alcohol after the first menstrual period and before the first pregnancy was linked with a risk of both breast cancer and benign breast disease.

Dr McCarthy said the risk associated with drinking between puberty and first pregnancy was greater than drinking alcohol later on in life. She said the breast tissue of younger women was particularly vulnerable because of the proliferation and turnover of cells.

“The risk of breast cancer in younger women who drink alcohol is proportionately greater than those who don’t,” said Dr McCarthy.

She said young people should be encouraged to delay starting drinking.

“Even moving the stage at which they start drinking alcohol by a couple of years would make a big difference in the whole lifetime risk,” she said.

Dr McCarthy said at least half of the alcohol-related cancers could be avoided if people kept within the Department of Health’s alcohol consumption guidelines.

A 10-year look back at figures compiled by the National Cancer Registry found 300 alcohol-related breast cancers every year could have been avoided.

“Younger women who are drinking heavily are putting themselves at greater risk down the line because your risk of cancer depends on how much you drink over your lifetime,” said Dr McCarthy.

Another speaker, Canadian author and alcohol policy advocate Ann Dowsett Johnston, said women were starting to out-pace men in terms of risky drinking.

“We need to jump-start a public health dialogue on the meaning of low-risk drinking as soon as possible,” she said.

Ms Dowsett Johnston described herself as the “poster girl” for the modern alcoholic — well-educated, high- achieving, and high-functioning. She is now six years sober.

“I used alcohol to decompress in a high-octane life. We are now witnessing a tragic rise in this sort of behaviour,” she said.

“Alcohol has become the modern women’s steroid, enabling her to do the heavy lifting in a complex world. The truth is it works — until it doesn’t.”

Alcohol Action Ireland chief executive Suzanne Costello said the proliferation of alcohol products designed to appeal specifically to women had contributed greatly to harmful female drinking.

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