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Adolescent alcohol consumption and breast cancer

Breast cancer patients often wonder what their daughters might do to reduce their risk of also developing cancer. Are there dietary intakes or behaviors that can be modified by their daughters to lower their own chances of getting the disease? A new study published early online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, sought information relevant to this question.

Dr. Catherine Berkey, a biostatistician at Brigham & Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, led a team that investigated childhood and adolescent risk factors for benign breast disease among girls with a family history of breast cancer. Benign breast disease, a large class of breast ailments that can cause breast lumps or breast pain, is a known risk factor for breast cancer. The authors found that among adolescent girls with a family history of breast cancer (or maternal benign breast disease), there was a significant association between amount of alcohol consumed and further increased risk of getting benign breast disease as young women.

The investigators analyzed information from the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS, founded by co-author Dr. Graham Colditz), which includes females who were aged nine to 15 years old in 1996 and who completed annual questionnaires from 1996 to 2001, then again in 2003, 2005, and 2007. Participants provided information regarding alcohol consumption, age at first menstrual period, height, and body mass index.

In the final two surveys, the participants (who were aged 18 to 27 years at the time) reported whether they had ever been diagnosed with benign breast disease. A total of 67 reported receiving this diagnosis (confirmed by breast biopsy), while another 6,741 reported they had never been diagnosed with the disease. Also, participants' mothers reported their own cases of benign breast disease and breast cancer, as well as breast cancer in their sisters and mothers (maternal aunts and maternal grandmothers of the participants).

Young women whose mothers or aunts had breast cancer were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with benign breast disease compared to young women with no family history. Young women whose mothers had benign breast disease also saw their own risk (for benign breast disease) nearly double. More importantly, among adolescent girls having a mother, aunt, or grandmother with breast cancer, the more alcohol the girls consumed, the more likely they were to develop benign breast disease as young women. The same held true for girls whose mothers had benign breast disease. These findings are consistent with previous studies (on older women) showing that drinking by adult women increases their risk of breast cancer.

"Our study suggests that adolescent females already at higher risk for breast cancer, in light of their family history, should be aware that avoiding alcohol may reduce their risk for benign breast disease as young women, which might be accompanied by reduced breast cancer risk later in life" said Dr. Berkey.

Furthermore, girls with a family history who had the most rapid height growth spurt were at increased risk, whereas in girls with no family history, height and body shape impacted their chances of developing benign breast disease. These findings suggest that risk factors for breast cancer may differ between women with a family history of breast cancer and women without a family history.

Contact: Jen Beal

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