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Originally published Monday, April 8, 2013 at 3:26 PM

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Alcohol increases risk of breast cancer but helps survivors live longer

While alcohol consumption is considered a risk for getting breast cancer, moderate drinking holds cardiovascular benefits that can increase longevity for the cancer survivors, says a new study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Seattle Times health reporter

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Drinking, most women know, can increase their risk of getting breast cancer. But now it turns out that moderate drinking before or after diagnosis also appears to increase longevity, researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and other centers reported Monday.

The best news for moderate drinking, either pre- or post-diagnosis, was that it did not affect a woman’s risk of dying from breast cancer.

The research also found an apparent link between alcohol and better survival from cardiovascular disease, increasingly recognized as a significant risk for breast-cancer survivors, said Polly Newcomb, head of the Cancer Prevention Program at “The Hutch,” who led the study, published in Monday’s edition of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Newcomb said many women, aware of what is now a solid connection between drinking alcohol and developing breast cancer, are worried that drinking, either before or after diagnosis, might increase their odds of dying of breast cancer.

Pre-diagnosis drinking — three to six drinks per week — reduced the chance of death from breast cancer 15 percent, compared to nondrinkers diagnosed with breast cancer. And drinking after diagnosis had no effect either way.

“Our findings should be reassuring to women,” Newcomb said, “because their past experience consuming alcohol or any future consumption will not likely impact their breast-cancer survival after diagnosis.”

Newcomb and the other researchers relied on data from almost 23,000 women who participated in a National Cancer Institute-sponsored study called the Collaborative Breast Cancer Study, and follow-up studies. Researchers followed the women for about 11 years after diagnosis, on average.

All the women reported on pre-diagnostic alcohol consumption, but only a subsample of 4,881 reported on their drinking post-diagnosis.

Alcohol’s benefits for surviving cardiovascular diseases varied, depending on whether women drank before or after diagnosis.

Relative to nondrinkers, breast-cancer survivors who drank up to nine drinks per week before diagnosis were 25 to 30 percent less likely than nondrinkers to die of heart disease.

Women who drank after diagnosis, even more than 10 drinks per week, had 40 to 60 percent less chance of dying from cardiovascular disease than nondrinkers, and overall, had increased longevity.

Because an estimated 65 percent of women in the U.S. consume alcohol, and because alcohol is recognized to play a part in breast-cancer risk, researchers wanted to look more closely at the relationship between pre- and post-diagnosis drinking and mortality among breast-cancer survivors.

The findings were adjusted for age, cancer stage, body mass index, smoking, mammography history and several risk factors for breast cancer.

Patients often ask their doctors whether their drinking history predicts the course of their disease and overall health, and whether they must now abstain from alcohol, Wendy Demark-Wahnefried wrote in an accompanying editorial. But there has been limited research in this area, particularly looking at post-diagnosis alcohol intake’s association with breast-cancer outcomes, the authors noted.

The findings in this study, Demark-Wahnefried wrote, are reassuring for women, particularly about post-diagnosis drinking, a lifestyle choice that the study did not link to any increased risk of death from breast cancer.

But, she added, just because moderate alcohol consumption is associated with cardiovascular benefit, nondrinkers shouldn’t be encouraged to drink, since alcohol is associated with other dangers, such as accidental and violent death, chronic health conditions and psychosocial problems.

In addition, she wrote, because of the study design, other factors such as physical activity or how well women followed treatment regimens could have played a part in the observed benefits, so more research is needed.

Newcomb said she will continue to focus on questions about survival, “and how women and men can improve their longevity after a diagnosis of cancer.”

Carol M. Ostrom: costrom@seattletimes.com

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