You've probably already heard that about one drink of alcohol a day may reduce 1 a woman's chances of developing heart disease. And you've probably also heard that drinking alcohol can raise the risk for breast cancer-in fact, a new study shows that as few as three drinks a week can have that life-threatening effect. How are women supposed to live with such conflicting health advice?

How Booze Affects Breast Health

Wendy Chen, an oncologist and epidemiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and DanaFarber Cancer Institute, conducted the recent study on breast cancer and alcohol. She analyzed data from almost 106,000 women, ages 34 to 59, who participated in the US Nurses' Health Study. Participants were followed from 1980 through 2008, and one thing that was tracked was their alcohol consumption. Dr. Chen found that those who reported having just three to six drinks per week were 15% more likely to develop breast cancer, compared with teetotalers and the type of alcohol didn't matter. Slightly heavier drinkers did worse—with those averaging about 11 or 12 drinks a week having a 51% higher risk for breast cancer. (That's just under two drinks a day on average! Alcohol is associated with higher estrogen levels and may make breast tissue more sensitive to the effects of estrogen, which can fuel cancer growth, said Dr. Chen. The findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"We already knew that alcohol upped breast cancer risk, but this study gives us a better idea of the threshold," Dr. Chen said. The study found that having two or fewer drinks a week was not "statistically significant in terms of leading to an increased risk for breast cancer. It also provides a more long-term view of the effects of alcohol consumption, compared with prior research, since this study followed women for almost three decades. It's important, she said, to focus on the common thread among those most at risk for breast cancer-drinking alcohol regularly over the course of many years In other words, in terms of breast cancer risk, don't worry about occasional drinking or even occasionally overdoing it-like at a holiday party-because that type of consumption wasn't linked to increased risk.

How It Affects Heart Health

But how do we balance this news about breast cancer with the fact that one drink per day-especially red wine, which contains the antioxidant resveratrol-might keep the cardiologist away? Robert Stark, MD, medical director of the cardiovascular prevention program at Greenwich Hospital/Yale New Haven Health, noted that a glass of alcohol a day has been shown in prior studies to help fend off cardiovascular problems by raising levels of HDL "good" cholesterol. But make no mistake, he said, aerobic exercise, such as walking or running, does a better job at raising our levels of HDL cholesterol than drinking red wine. And there is no downside to a sensible program of regular exercise.

So What’s The Solution?

As you might have guessed, there's no single answer to whether or not you should hesitate to fill your wine glass, and a lot has to do with the individual risk factors that you have for either condition. For example, Dr. Stark said, women with one or more cardiovascular risk factors should do several things to reduce their risk for heart disease-and having a nightly glass of red wine could be one of them.

But for women at high risk for breast cancer, drinking should probably be a rare indulgence, said Dr. Chen. Who else may want to cut back? Women under age 38, because their estrogen levels are at their peak, said Dr. Stark.

What if you carry risk factors for both cardiovascular disease and breast cancer? Now that's a tougher question to answer.

But keep this one uplifting thought in mind: There are so many risk factors that you can't control, like age and genetics-focus on the fact that drinking alcohol is at least a modifiable risk factor, one that you can control. Talk to your doctor-maybe even bring along a copy of this article-and together, figure out your best sipping strategy.

IUDs Reduce Cervical Cancer Risk

Women who used an intrauterine device (IUD) for birth control had only about half the risk for cervical cancer, compared with women who had not used one. Research suggests that IUDs-possibly because they cause chronic low-grade inflammation may boost a woman's immune system, helping to fight off human papillomavirus (HPV) infections that can progress to cancer.

New HPV Test Catches Cancer Earlier

The FDA-approved Cobas test is the only HPV test able to determine whether a woman has HPV types 16 and 18-the forms that are most likely to lead to cervical cancer. Women age 30 and older should have an HPV test along with a Pap test-usually every three years. Ask your doctor for details.

How to Prevent Recurrence Once You've Had Cervical Cancer

It's a huge relief for any woman to put cervical cancer behind her and get on with life, of course.

But: Even more than four decades after being successfully treated, women who have undergone radiation therapy for cervical cancer have a 30% increased risk of developing a second cancer. The most vulnerable areas are those near the cervix-including the colon, rectum, anus, bladder, ovaries and genitals.

Cancer defense: Researchers urge cervical cancer survivors to scrupulously adhere to their oncologists' recommendations for getting periodic follow-up cancer screenings of organs near the cervix.

Want to Keep Reading?

Continue reading with a Health Confidential membership.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in