Binge Drinking Increases Breast Cancer Risk for Young Women

But it's not just binging that's dangerous. See how your age and even light drinking may lead to breast cancer.

Medically reviewed in January 2021

Updated on February 1, 2021

When fall rolls around, it’s back to college for many young women. Back to catching up with friends, sports practice, studying and—for even more young women than men—binge drinking. Two big studies —one from Harvard Medical School—have noted that college-age women binge drink more than men their age. 

The second study, cited in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, quantified what that means for their health. It found that alcohol during this time increased a woman’s risk of breast cancer significantly. Previous studies have tied alcohol intake to breast cancer—one study of 100,000 women showed that for every 10g of alcohol per day (about 70 percent of a standard drink), the risk of breast cancer increases by 10 percent. However, this study was the first to tie TIMING of consumption of alcohol and breast cancer risk, and found that alcohol consumption in the time from a female’s first period to her first pregnancy is even MORE dangerous—with one drink per day increasing the risk of breast cancer by 13 percent, and the risk of benign breast disease by 15 percent (which further ups your risk for breast cancer). Three drinks per day? The risk increases by 20 percent. 

Why the connection? 
Scientists aren’t sure exactly why alcohol and breast cancer are linked, but it’s felt that drinking affects estrogen levels, which could explain why it seems to increase the risk of estrogen-receptive cancers the most. During the time between menstruation and childbearing, the body is in its rapid development stage, meaning cells are proliferating and changing and are even more susceptible to any environmental exposure. So, a known toxin like alcohol at this vulnerable time causes greater risk. 

Is light drinking linked to breast cancer? 
It’s hard to say how much a young woman could drink without compromising her future health. Some studies have shown an association with cancer with even three to six drinks per week. So we can’t necessarily say that there’s a “safe” amount, and everyone has to make their own decisions. That said, we do know that certain amounts raise your risk, especially: 

  • Drinking three drinks or more per day 
  • Drinking even one drink per day regularly, especially in one’s teens and early 20s 
  • Regular binge drinking (for women, binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks in about two hours) 

If you’re a female in this age bracket, or you have a loved one that is, please share this information with her. The college years are a time of study—but there are plenty of healthy ways to kick back and enjoy life without alcohol increasing the risk of breast cancer along the way! 

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