DR LIZ O'RIORDAN: Did drinking like a fish aged 25 contribute to my breast ... trends now
And aside from being a breast cancer surgeon – now retired – I’ve had breast cancer twice, so it’s a subject close to my heart.
In the clips, which I put out on social media, I address a simple fact: if you want to decrease your risk of getting breast cancer, or previous breast cancer coming back, cut down on how much alcohol you drink.
When alcohol is broken down in the body, a carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemical called acetaldehyde is released. Normally this is further broken down into harmless substances, but consistent, regular drinking can mean acetaldehyde builds up in the body – and this can cause damage to cells. These damaged cells may become cancerous.
Dr Liz O'Riordan, pictured in her 20s with a glass of wine in her hand believes that alcohol may have increased the likelihood that she developed breast cancer aged 40
Dr O'Riordan, pictured, was diagnosed with the disease in 2015 aged 40
Alcohol consumption also increases the level of some hormones, including oestrogen, which drives some types of breast cancer. Just one glass of wine or a pint every day – roughly two to three units of alcohol – makes it more likely a woman will develop the disease, increasing risk by 15 per cent.
The risk goes up another ten per cent for each additional daily drink.
If you have breast cancer, and you drank alcohol in the past, it doesn’t mean that was why you developed the disease. For most, we can’t pinpoint the exact reason. The three biggest factors are having breasts, getting older and plain old bad luck. But there is strong evidence that alcohol consumption can contribute in a significant way.
It’s important to point out a 15 per cent increase in risk does not mean you have a 15 per cent chance of getting breast cancer. It means your own personal risk of getting breast cancer – depending on your age and whether you have a history of the disease or have it in the family – is increased by 15 per cent.
I knew, from following similar threads on Twitter and Instagram, that this can be a difficult topic to talk about. Some people get offended, branding it ‘victim-blaming’ – as if you’re implying that if a woman who drinks (which, let’s face it, is many of us) develops breast cancer, it’s their fault.
I get the sense of victim-blaming, really, I do. After I was diagnosed, a friend might mention they’d read that working night shifts or stress were ‘causes’ of breast cancer. There was also a big thing around that time suggesting that using deodorant was a trigger.
I knew there was no good evidence for these things, so I’d fly off the handle. It felt like people were saying all the pain I was going through was somehow self-inflicted. And that hurt even more.
Today, having undergone multiple operations, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, I am currently clear of cancer. Treatment ended my career as a surgeon, because it affected how I could move my arm.
But now I write, lecture and use social media to raise awareness and share public health messages.
I think it’s vital that women know their breast cancer risks, no matter how uncomfortable it might feel.
I have often wondered whether my own heavy drinking as a junior doctor might have played a part in my diagnosis, aged 40.
I drank like a fish – and if we were told then that alcohol raised cancer risk (it is also implicated in bowel, mouth, throat and liver cancer too) it didn’t sink in.
Perhaps I was naive, or deliberately looking the other way. I’m embarrassed to admit, but in my early 20s I’d often get so drunk I’d struggle to remember the night before. I was the first student in my year to end up in hospital with alcohol poisoning – and I was almost proud. I went from being a nerd to a nerd who could drink.
Like many young women, I think alcohol gave me confidence when I felt unsure of myself, trying to forge a career as a surgeon – a notoriously male-dominated world.
As I grew up, I stopped being so reckless, but drink remained part of everyday life. A birthday? Let’s have a drink. Just unwinding after work? Let’s have a drink...
When my video posts about the links between alcohol and cancer went out, comments were overwhelmingly positive. People were grateful to be presented with the evidence. But of course, some were upset. I was accused of being ‘alarmist’ – someone said if they showed my video to a friend who’d had breast cancer, it would ‘just freak her out’.
Another said I should correct what I said to point out it was only ‘excessive’ alcohol consumption that was a risk factor.
But in reality, there is no safe level of alcohol. Even one unit a day – a single shot of spirits, or half a glass of wine – increases breast cancer risk by five per cent.
Others said they were going to stop following me on social media: ‘I don’t need to hear that the odd glass of wine, that after all I’ve been through, it might make my breast cancer come back. It’s goodbye from me,’ wrote one.