Women ignoring cancer-alcohol risk: study

The link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer is well established, but low level awareness in the community. Photo: unsplash.com

Middle-aged women in Australia aren’t getting the message about the proven link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer, a Flinders University researcher says.

At a time when more women aged between 45 and 64 years are drinking, cancer rates in their age bracket also are increasing, the study finds.

“There is a low level of awareness about the established link between alcohol and breast cancer, and some confusion about the risk given the community perception that not all drinkers get breast cancer,” says study lead author Dr Emma Miller, from the College of Medicine and Public Health at Flinders University.

“So it’s really important to understand the patterns and drivers behind drinking behaviour in order to develop policies and interventions that might reduce the increasing burden on the women and our health system.”

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia, accounting for more than 13% of all new cancers and 28% of all cancers diagnosed in women.

The new study indicates the survey cohort are concerned about the negative impacts on their weight, relationships or lifestyle rather then warnings about an increased risk of cancer.

Dr Miller says the findings in her study suggest targeted messages which address short-terms risk caused by alcohol will have the greatest impact on reducing current consumption levels.

“Alcohol is firmly entrenched in the fabric of Australian society, providing pleasure and defining the major events in most of our lives,” she says.

“Raising awareness of alcohol-related cancer risk, despite the importance of this, will not be sufficient to counter patterns of consumption.”

The study involved 35 South Australian women, aged between 45 and 64, who have never been diagnosed with cancer. They were interviewed about their personal alcohol consumption, education level and perceived risk of breast cancer .

“It’s interesting that the group were most aware about short-term harms like the impact alcohol has on their weight, mental health, and relationships rather then cancer.”

Dr Miller says authorities will have to develop carefully targeted policy and interventions which address short term risks perceived as more important by these women, as they become a larger demographic for the alcohol industry.

“We all want to hear good news about drinking, such as small amounts of red wine may be good for cardiovascular disease, which is a message that’s promoted by the alcohol industry,” Dr Miller says.

“In contrast, information that alcohol is linked to breast cancer is actively suppressed by the industry presumably in order to build the female customer base.

“Our research shows that while more middle aged women are drinking, there are ways of getting the right messages through by focusing on issues important to them. For example, younger people are drinking less so we can look into the reasons behind that and utilise them.”

The paper, ‘Alcohol and breast cancer risk: Middle-aged women’s logic and recommendations for reducing consumption in Australia‘ (2019) by Samantha B Meyer, Kristen Foley, Ian Olver, Paul R Ward, Darlene McNaughton, Lillian Mwanri and Emma R Miller has been published in PLOS ONE 14(2): e0211293. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0211293

The paper is one of several to come from the Flinders Foundation-funded ‘Alcohol and Breast Cancer (ABC) Study’ (Miller ER, Ward PR, Mwanri L, McNaughton D, Olver IN, Meyer S).  This work is continuing with a recently awarded ARC Discovery Grant, ‘Understanding middle-aged women’s responses to alcohol/breast cancer risks’ (Ward PR, Warin M, Wilson CJ, Olver IN, Miller ER, Bissell P, Meyer S, MacDonald S).

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College of Medicine and Public Health