Wine may help breast cancer patients receiving radiation

Despite advances in screening and early diagnosis of breast cancer, little has changed in how it is treated over the past ten or twenty years. For most women, it comes down to a choice of mastectomy or removal of the tumor (lumpectomy) and radiation. If it has spread, then chemotherapy is recommended. The good news for women choosing mastectomy is that breast reconstruction techniques have improved substantially, but for patients opting for “breast conserving therapy” an ordeal of several weeks of radiation treatment is still standard treatment. And despite the fact that the breast is conserved, the radiation causes irreversible changes and even some disfigurement on top of the dent left after the lumpectomy. But now there is some evidence that wine may help prevent some of these changes, despite lingering controversy about the role of alcohol in breast cancer risk.

The data comes from a study from the Catholic University in Campobasso, Italy, a center where wine and health research has been particularly fruitful in recent years. The researchers assessed skin toxicity (redness, irritation) from radiation in each of 3 groups of women receiving different treatment doses. Overall, women who drank wine had a lower incidence of skin toxicity compared to nondrinkers (22% vs. 38%), and the amount of daily drinking had an influence as well. Women who drank a half a glass or less had a 32% incidence, while only14% of those consuming a glass a day experience significant skin irritation. However, the percentage increased as drinking increased above a glass a day, with 2 glasses about as high as none. Those who are familiar with my book Age Gets Better with Wine will recognize this as a J-shaped curve, where moderate drinkers enjoy benefits not associated with abstinence or heavy drinking.

Earlier reports on various types of cancer have revealed that polyphenol molecules in wine, including but not limited to resveratrol, have the effect of protecting cells from the toxic effects of radiation while simultaneously sensitizing cancer cell to it. That would provide an explanation to the findings of this clinical study. What isn’t known, and cannot be directly inferred from this type of study is whether supplements of wine-derived compounds will have the same effect. Clinical trials should provide the answers within the next few years.

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