Some drinking tied to longer life post-breast cancer

NEW YORK Thu Apr 11, 2013 12:35pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Women with breast cancer who had a few alcoholic drinks per week before their diagnosis were slightly less likely to die from their cancer, according to a study that followed newly-diagnosed patients for 11 years, on average.

Moderate drinking before and after a breast cancer diagnosis was also tied to better heart health and fewer deaths from non-cancer causes, the study team found.

"This is a lifestyle choice," said Dr. Pamela Goodwin from Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, who wrote a commentary published with the new study.

"With alcohol, what we're saying is, if you are someone who would like to have the odd drink, it's probably safe," she told Reuters Health. "We're not telling women to go out and start drinking."

Researchers asked close to 23,000 women who were diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985 through 2006 about their drinking habits, exercise and use of hormones before their diagnosis.

About 5,000 of those women were surveyed again about their diet and lifestyle habits a few years later.

The study team found women who reported drinking three to six alcoholic drinks per week before getting cancer were 15 percent less likely to die of the disease over the 11 years post-diagnosis, on average, compared to non-drinkers.

However, there was no link between either occasional drinking or heavier drinking before diagnosis and survival from breast cancer, Polly Newcomb from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and her colleagues wrote in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Research has shown regular drinking raises a woman's risk of developing breast cancer in the first place (see Reuters Health story of November 1, 2011 here:

One possible explanation for the new findings, Goodwin said, is that alcohol predisposes women to a less-dangerous form of cancer, making their survival better than the average non-drinker who develops cancer. Or, she added, women who drink moderately may have a healthier lifestyle, in general, than non-drinkers or heavy drinkers.

About one in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime, and one in 36 will die of the disease.

Among women in the study who completed surveys in the years after getting cancer, post-diagnosis drinking did not affect the chance of dying from breast cancer - but it did seem to improve general health.

For example, women who drank 10 drinks per week were about half as likely to die of heart disease and 36 percent less likely to die from all causes combined than non-drinkers. The effect was similar, but not as strong, for women who had three to six or seven to nine drinks per week.

"What this finding does is it sort of frees up a woman to make that choice, whereas in the past we might have cautioned that women not even consider a single drink," Goodwin said.

SOURCE: Journal of Clinical Oncology, online April 8, 2013.

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Comments (3)
RociN wrote:
One must be healthy in order to process that amount of alcohol each week. There are lots of social pressures to drink and only healthy people can drink moderately without suffering negative effects.

Apr 11, 2013 2:43pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Dr_GS_Hurd wrote:
There are many well conducted studies of pre- and post diagnosis drinking which incontrovertibly link drinking and breast cancer recurrence and mortality. Some even published in the same journal as this news item’s source. For example, see:

Chen WY, et al
2011 “Moderate Alcohol Consumption During Adult Life, Drinking Patterns, and Breast Cancer Risk” JAMA. 2011;306(17):1884-1890. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.1590.

Marilyn L. Kwan, et al
2010 “Alcohol Consumption and Breast Cancer Recurrence and Survival Among Women With Early-Stage Breast Cancer: The Life After Cancer Epidemiology Study” JCO Oct 10, 2010:4410-4416; published online on August 30, 2010;

The current “headline” article used quadratic discriminant function analysis which is actually a variant of multivariate analysis of variance. Quadratics have a very strong bias toward interaction effects, and can easily underestimate main effects. For example, we know absolutely that alone alcohol consumption contributes to breast cancer incidence. So do hormone treatments, tobacco smoking, and genetics. If we make a variable alcohol+tobacco+birth_control it can “disappear” alcohol alone as a risk factor.

As a former professor of medicine who taught statistics, I am very dubious of this result.

Apr 11, 2013 4:07pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Szbignewski wrote:
With much respect for Dr. Hurd’s critique of the actual analytical methods;

The experiment seems designed simply to demonstrate once again a relationship with which we are already familiar: Persons who are able to live moderately and sensibly in a world which presents an almost overwhealming system of incentives toward extremes, including (but not limited to) addiction, and abstinence, ALSO seem to live longer, and be healthier and happier.

But, we really kind of knew that already. How about a study to identify actual mechanisms, not just relationships?

Apr 11, 2013 10:56pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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