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2 weeks ago
29 April, 2022
For Melissa, who lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland, her initial motivation to quit was her mental health. But as her journey of being sober progressed, she became more aware of the physical benefits of quitting alcohol including knowing she was reducing her risk of cancers such as breast cancer.
Drinking alcohol is a serious risk factor for breast cancer. It is thought to contribute to around 4,400 cases in women every year in the UK alone (1). Alcohol (also known as ethanol) affects a woman’s body in a number of ways. It can increase oestrogen levels, which affects your risk of getting breast cancer. It’s also broken down in the body into by-products which can damage cells and cause DNA mutations, which may lead to breast cancer.
It was during Melissa’s doctorate degree in 2019 that she began noticing her relationship with alcohol was ‘kind of taking a weird turn’, she explains. “I was binge drinking on the weekends, normal stuff, you know? Just out with friends or my cousins. But the next day I’d wake up with terrible anxiety. I’d forget what I’d said or not remember certain parts of the evening. I started thinking I needed to drink less and would tell myself I wasn’t going to drink at the weekend but then find myself out drinking with friends again”.
And then the pandemic happened.
It was during the first lockdown in May 2020 that she really noticed her drinking had gotten out of control. She’d be on a video call, partying with friends and then would blackout after a couple of drinks and the anxiety the next day was getting worse and worse.
Melissa said: “Every Monday I would tell myself that I’m not drinking this weekend and would have a reset, but somehow on Friday I ended up drinking wine and getting ridiculously drunk. I was blacking out more and more in the end. And I was waking up unsure what I’d said and whether I’d offended anyone. Without fail, I would wake up and the anxiety would be 10 times worse than the previous week. Saturday, Sunday and Monday I was unable to do anything. I was just so embarrassed about blacking out and not remembering what I’d said and done.”
It was after the sixth weekend of the same behaviour that Melissa, who is now a consumer psychologist and mindset coach, knew she had to have a break and set herself the goal of giving up alcohol for 30 days. However, seeing so many positive changes to both her physical and mental health after just a short while, she decided to continue and hasn’t drunk alcohol since!
Melissa recalls: “I really immersed myself in it. I wasn’t trying to cut out sugar or get fit or start running, I just wanted to stop drinking alcohol. I did start going on long walks and I listened to some really helpful recovery podcasts. But the real thing that helped me was reading people’s stories who felt the same as I did. There’s this image that you’re either a normal drinker or an alcoholic but there’s actually that grey area in the middle where alcohol may not really be helping or serving you. It gave me the opportunity to ask questions about myself and why I was drinking.”
The changes to how she felt about herself were life-changing, especially for her anxiety. She said: “After just a couple of weeks I felt amazing, and I just kept going and thought I’ll see how long I can go. And the longer I had quit, the easier it got and the less I desired alcohol altogether.”
Melissa encourages other people to quit drinking – even if it’s having a few breaks from alcohol throughout the year or as part of a challenge with friends. However, she understands that alcohol is ingrained in society and it’s a tricky thing to discuss with people. She added: “It baffles me a bit as people easily become vegan or start a new exercise regime on the proviso of getting healthy but still knowingly drink a carcinogen that can cause cancer. But that’s a lot to do with society and our culture of drinking.”
Melissa is no stranger to how different chemicals can cause breast cancer after writing her thesis, as part of her PhD, on how to communicate the risks of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) to the public. EDCs are chemicals that interfere with our hormones. Exposure to EDCs, even at low concentrations, has been linked to numerous health problems including breast cancers. That’s why Breast Cancer UK is passionate about highlighting their links to breast cancer to encourage people to take action to reduce their risk. Learn more about EDCs here.
She uses her Instagram account to share tips on how to go sober and to myth-bust some of the more dubious claims people are told by the alcohol industry. “We’re being told now that organic wine is healthier than normal wine but any health risk you’re avoiding by reducing your exposure to pesticides or sulphites is outweighed by the carcinogenic effect of the actual alcohol. ‘Clean’ wine is a marketing ploy. It’s like telling someone to buy clean cigarettes!” she added.
Melissa, who was born in the US, found social occasions difficult, to begin with, and said her first sober Christmas was hard. “I’m not going to lie, I found it a bit difficult. I’m not even sure if it was because I wasn’t drinking or because of the restrictions on social gatherings. Despite this, I have now gone to many social events and parties where most people were drinking, and I wasn’t.”
Melissa never believed she was an alcoholic, but knew alcohol was detrimentally affecting her life and quitting allowed her to ask the right questions about why she was using alcohol to feel better.
Her main tip for giving up alcohol is to be prepared, especially in the beginning when people ask why you’re not drinking. She said: “You don’t have to give people your life story, you can lie and say you’re on antibiotics or driving, whatever works for you but have an answer prepared and rehearse it out loud. I would do this all the time in the beginning.”
Focusing on all the positives of not drinking – no hangovers, weight loss, no anxiety, saving money – helped a lot in the first few weeks. She also advises people to clear their diaries in the first few weeks of any social situations which could involve drinking. There’s also a thriving online sober community that can support you on your journey to quitting.
Drinking any amount of alcohol increases breast cancer risk. There is no lower limit. The higher the intake the greater the risk. For women who have had a breast cancer diagnosis, the more alcohol they drink, the more likely breast cancer will come back after initial treatment.
UK government guidelines recommend drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol per week for both men and women and suggest you limit the amount you drink on any one occasion. If possible, try to follow these guidelines as a minimum, and aim for less if you can.
Whatever your motivation for quitting drinking, or cutting back on the amount you drink, it will have a positive impact on your health and reduce your chances of getting breast cancer.
If you want to try to go dry – get sponsored to do our Ditch the Drink Challenge and go dry for 30 days, and see what the benefits are for you.
(1) Brown, K. F. et al. (2018). The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015. British Journal of Cancer 118: 1130–1141. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41416-018-0029-6
The estimate is based on the number of cases of breast cancer in the UK which was 55, 500 in 2016-2018. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/breast-cancer
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