Epidemiological studies have been used to show associations between modifiable lifestyle habits and the incidence of breast cancer. Among such factors, a history of alcohol use has been reported in multiple studies and meta-analyses over the past decades. However, associative epidemiological studies that were interpreted as evidence that even moderate alcohol consumption increases breast cancer incidence have been controversial. In this review, we consider the literature on the relationship between moderate or heavy alcohol use, both in possible biological mechanisms and in variations in susceptibility due to genetic or epigenetic factors. We argue that there is a need to incorporate additional approaches to move beyond the associations that are reported in traditional epidemiological analyses and incorporate information on molecular pathologic signatures as a requirement to posit causal inferences. In particular, we point to the efforts of the transdisciplinary field of molecular pathological epidemiology (MPE) to evaluate possible causal relationships, if any, of alcohol consumption and breast cancer. A wider application of the principles of MPE to this field would constitute a giant step that could enhance our understanding of breast cancer and multiple modifiable risk factors, a step that would be particularly suited to the era of “personalized medicine”.
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