In her powerful article, “Did Drinking Give Me Breast Cancer?”, Mother Jones reporter Stephanie Mencimer explores the link between alcohol and breast cancer. What she discovered may be more relevant to your kids’ experiences with underage drinking than you might think.
Diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer at age 47 – 15 years younger than the median age in the U.S. – the journalist embarked on her own personal journey that included conducting extensive research, which led her to a shocking truth she was unaware of until she was diagnosed: the link between alcohol and breast cancer, she learned, is “deadly solid.”
Alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer, but it kills more women from breast cancer than from any other.
I’m a pretty voracious reader of health news, and all of this came as a shock. I’d been told red wine was supposed to defend against heart disease, not give you cancer.
Mencimer drank in her younger years in a Mormon community in Utah, “where we distinguished ourselves from the future missionaries in the public schools with excessive drinking.” (It’s interesting to note that in Utah, Mormon women’s breast cancer rates are more than 24 percent lower than the national average.)
As an adult, though, she spent her life regularly going to the doctor for check-ups, eating right, and exercising regularly. She breastfed her children and avoided plastics, sugar, and pesticides. She had no family history of breast cancer. Still, she wrote, “not once has any doctor suggested I might face a higher cancer risk if I didn’t cut back on drinking.”
This begs the question: if educated adults dedicated to healthy lifestyles aren’t aware of the link between alcohol and breast cancer, how are our kids supposed to know about it?
Mencimer explores the potential effects of excessive alcohol at a young age in her article:
Ninety percent of alcohol consumption by underage Americans is binge drinking, defined as four or more drinks on one occasion, according to the CDC. I’ll never know for sure, but all the drinking I did in my adolescence may have helped pave the way for the cancer I got at 47.
The average age youth in Texas report drinking their first alcoholic beverage is 12.6, which is also the average age of a seventh grader.
We already know that the longer kids wait to take their first drink, the lower the odds are that they’ll develop alcohol abuse or dependence as adults. They’re also less likely to experience the negative consequences of underage drinking – things like alcohol-related car crashes, unplanned or unprotected sexual activity, physical and sexual assault, abuse of other drugs, or even death from alcohol poisoning.
These are things we should be talking to our kids about on a regular basis. But should we also be talking about reducing their risk of cancer later in life?
For cancer prevention, alcohol consumption is one of largest avoidable risk factors. The International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates that for every drink consumed daily, the risk of breast cancer goes up 7 percent. Moreover, 12 percent of female breast cancer diagnoses are attributable to alcohol consumption.
Our children may not be interested in percentages, and they may not fully comprehend that their future risk of cancer increases with underage drinking. But they need to know that underage drinking has consequences that extend beyond the most obvious ones like drinking and driving.
Time and time again, research tells us that parents play a critical role in their child’s decision to drink underage. Recent research out of Australia also reveals that, like adults, most young people don’t know about the link between alcohol and cancer. However, those aged 14-17 are less likely to drink if they are aware that the link exists. The report highlights the need for parents to educate their children on this kind of health issue in addition to modeling responsible drinking behaviors.
This October, we want to recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the opportunity it provides to talk to our children about the C-word. As parents, we can do our part to arm them with basic knowledge so that they aren’t surprised to discover, as Mencimer was, that their choices today may affect them tomorrow.
If you’re interested in learning more about alcohol and cancer in Texas, check out the “Alcohol-Attributable Cancer Deaths” addendum from our report, The Effects of Alcohol Excise Tax Increases on Public Health and Safety in Texas.