24 May, 2023

Charlie PearceI’m Charlie, and I’m 37. My mum had breast cancer ten years ago. Luckily, it was caught at Stage 1. But it was high-grade cancer, so she needed chemo and radiotherapy after a lumpectomy. Thankfully, she is well now.  

Since she had it, I’ve obviously been more conscious about breast cancer. A good friend at choir got cancer in her 30s, which was close to home too. And in the advent of social media – and probably my anxieties about breast cancer coming back to me in the algorithm – I think it’s on my mind more than your average person. I check my breasts regularly but I hadn’t really considered lifestyle choices.

It wasn’t until I became aware of the risk factors for alcohol that I began to question my relationship with it. I was at a New Year party about seven years ago, and I got talking to a family friend. She had just started a new job on the DrinkAware campaign. I like to think that the fact I was drunk was neither here nor there- but she recommended I download the app, as it was really interesting. The next morning, a wee bit worse for wear, I downloaded it. I began filling in what I was drinking. 

I drank too much as a student – who didn’t?! And I used to live abroad, which probably increased my alcohol consumption (I lived in France- it would have been churlish not to make the most of the wine…). But I’ve never been a *massive* drinker. Aside from weddings and special occasions, I didn’t tend to binge. I would drink a few glasses of wine in the week. And I’d have the odd gin too. But with the app, I realised that – coupled with the odd binge – those few glasses of wine could add up. I was approaching my weekly recommended limit, and this was happening more than I would have liked. It started to freak me out. 

The units thing blew my mind. For example, when I lived in Lyon, a bar next to my house served Chouffe on tap. I thought my drunkenness at 7 pm was due to drinking straight after work. It was only when I became aware of units that I realised it was because I was drinking an 8% ABV beer, which was about 2.5 units per half.  

Equipped with this additional knowledge, I wasn’t as keen on bingeing. After about a year, I stopped filling in the app – I felt I had enough knowledge by this point – but drinking had changed for me. I still drank – but I had lost the carefree mindset I’d once had. Whenever I drank, I saw units.  

I started to limit what I was drinking. But I found it quite hard. The social pressure to drink is huge, and – as a woman in your thirties – if you’re not drinking, everyone assumes you’re pregnant, which is difficult for a whole load of other reasons. You feel like you have to justify sobriety. When there’s a cause, it’s a bit easier – I would do Dry January/Sober October, for example, and feel less awkward about it. 

I wouldn’t beat myself up too much for getting drunk at Christmas – special occasions felt ok. I’d still have a glass of wine or two at the weekends. But every time, I’d agonise over what I drank. 

This year, I did Dry January. January was tough for a few reasons, and I thought it would have been nice to have a glass of wine. Though I didn’t really miss it, I didn’t have a massive epiphany about booze and didn’t decide to give up, either.

It wasn’t until I had a really important conversation with one of my close friends. She had given up booze a few years ago. I knew that she had done it for health reasons – there is cancer in her family. But when we had a proper chat about it, she explained that she got sick of the health anxiety associated with boozing and realised it wasn’t worth it. When she shared her mental anguish about drinking, and I recognised these thoughts too – it dawned on me how much grief drinking gave me.  

I decided I’d had enough of it too. So I started to experiment with going out and not drinking.and I realised I loved it. Being free from the angst of having a drink and the ability to drive home was bliss. I couldn’t believe how great I felt. The nights I allowed myself to drink I found myself happy with the one drink. And it wasn’t even that difficult. I had worried about having to explain myself to people. But actually, no one cared. 

No alcohol tastes as good for me as peace feels. You can get breast cancer for lots of reasons. ​But there are risk factors, and alcohol is one of them. If alcohol made me feel great, maybe I’d loosen up a little. But the physical, coupled with the mental effects, for me, means it isn’t worth it.  

I don’t think I’d give up altogether. But only drinking occasionally has been a revelation. I think because drinking is woven so deeply into our culture, we do it without thinking about it. And if you can drink under those circumstances, then craic on. But I was overthinking about it. You might get cancer anyway – there’s no way of knowing if you could have prevented it – but I’m happier drinking much less. 

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer in women. The more women drink, the more breast cancer risk increases. Even very light drinking (one drink per week) increases the risk. 

Alcohol and breast cancer

In the UK, it is estimated that 8% (around 4,400) of female breast cancer cases are linked to alcohol consumption. Breast Cancer UK suggests drinking in moderation. Do not exceed UK government guidelines of no more than 14 units of alcohol per week. Avoid binge drinking and aim to have some alcohol-free days each week. 

The Alcohol Health Alliance said: “Even at low levels of alcohol intake (below 1.5 units per day, or 10.5 units per week), there is an increased risk of breast cancer in women. 

“For female breast cancer, relative risks of both illness and death from the disease increase by 16% if regularly drinking at two units per day (equivalent to the CMO guidelines); by 40% if regularly drinking at five units per day (more than double the proposed guideline).” 

They added, “A quarter of all adults aged 45-54 drink at increasing or higher risk. People in the 55-64 age bracket consume the most alcohol, with 28% of all adults aged 55-64 drinking above the CMO’s guidelines. 

“There is no safe level of alcohol consumption for cancer, but cutting down can significantly help to reduce your risk, e.g., the risk of illness and death from breast cancer decreases from 40% when drinking 28 units a week to 16% when drinking 14.” 

Start your prevention journey today with our Breast Cancer Prevention Quiz here. It’s never too soon or too late to reduce your risk of breast cancer. For tips on how to reduce your alcohol intake, read our blog here. 

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