Why Some Women Question the Link Between Alcohol and Breast Cancer


Participants in a recent study said they took health warnings related to the problem with “a pinch of salt” for a number of reasons.

Up to one in 10 cases of breast cancer in Australia is linked to alcohol consumption.

Until one in 10 Breast cancer cases in Australia are linked to alcohol consumption.

Middle-aged women are already at increased risk of breast cancer due to their age, and tend to drink more than younger women. This means that this group is even more at risk for breast cancer.

Until now, health authorities have mainly dealt with this problem by telling women not to drink. But does this approach – which positions alcohol consumption as an individual’s “problem” based on their own “bad” choices – really work?

In fact, our recent study found that women are not necessarily aware of the link between alcohol and breast cancer. And even when they are, they are not always able to “choose” to quit.

What the women told us
We wanted to better understand where women seek health information, how they access specific alcohol-related breast cancer risk information, and how they determine whether (or not) this information is reliable.

We interviewed 50 ‘middle-aged’ women (aged 45-64) living in South Australia from different social classes.

Previous to research showed that alcohol consumption performs a range of important functions for women, such as coping, socializing, networking, and dealing with difficulties. Women often feel that they cannot necessarily “choose” not to drink under these circumstances.

Women also face mixed messages about alcohol and cancer risk.

Certain brands of alcohol display pink ribbons to raise awareness about breast cancer. And more generally, media reports have come and gone over the years about the alleged risks or benefits of alcohol for various illnesses.

Many women in our study did not know that alcohol causes breast cancer. But when they heard that, they especially wanted to know more.

“I didn’t realize there was a connection and I went on and questioned him after that, because I enjoy a glass of wine,” one woman told us.

“And I wondered what I was knowingly getting myself into here…and to understand how alcohol affects your body, in terms of increased estrogen levels, and so that has a link to breast cancer.”

Others thought that if knowledge became more mainstream, messages about breast cancer risk would be more likely to be accepted (or, at least, less likely to be rejected).

“I think sometimes the more information gets out, or the more it is repeated, the more it becomes common knowledge rather than easily dismissed,” said another respondent.

Question the message and the messenger
But, even if women are aware, the message that alcohol causes breast cancer can be difficult and confusing to hear. In response, confidence in the message may waver.

As one woman put it, “I wonder a lot because I think the media is exaggerating it…I take it with a pinch of salt.

Messages that seemed overdone were also off-putting.

“First of all, just look at the tone of how they wrote about things, you probably would, if you thought it was sensationalism, or if they were grinding axes,” said one respondent.

Indeed, encountering conflicting information in everyday life has made some public health messages less credible for some women we spoke to. Some women instead preferred to rely on their “intuition” to judge the information.

Considering who and what to trust with information about alcohol and breast cancer was critical for women. Some want these complexities to be recognized and messages to be delivered in an “unbiased” manner.

‘You just listen, see if they’re going to talk about a certain theme, maybe without any basis to say it, if they try to push a certain point of view without having any basis or back-up for it’, said a woman.

“Rather than someone who’s impartial, you know, impartial about things.”

Skeptical of experts
Some women, especially those living with difficulties, were more likely to be skeptical of information and sources of information, even if based on expert research.

They described needing time to review the posts and deem them trustworthy, with some feeling that research evidence can be skewed to serve different interests.

As one said: “Well, I know there has been a variety of research, but I have to admit that I tend to be rather skeptical about some research… things can be found that really say “Oh, yes, that’s what [has been found]”and then someone will come and [say] “No, it’s not like that at all.”

We found that women want to trust messages that are clear, consistent, and non-judgmental, otherwise distrust of the message and the messenger could become the default position.

Health messages to women about alcohol-related breast cancer risk should recognize the social and market factors that encourage alcohol consumption.

Too often, public health messages ask women to take responsibility for reducing their alcohol consumption – without sufficiently recognizing that the same women are targeted by alcohol advertising and that many see alcohol as a reliable “friend” in the absence of other social support.

If we don’t recognize this, we risk perpetuating the same stigma and blame that drives women to drink in the first place.

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First published in The conversation. Read it original article.

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