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Social class affects women's perceptions of alcohol-related breast cancer risk

28.04.2023 - New research led by Professor Paul Ward from the Centre for Public Health, Equity and Human Flourishing at Torrens University Australia reveals that social class plays a significant role in shaping women's perceptions of alcohol-related breast cancer risk.

The study, titled "Extending the sociology of candidacy: Bourdieu’s relational social class and mid-life women’s perceptions of alcohol-related breast cancer risk," examines how an interpretative sociological framework called 'candidacy' was used to understand women's perspectives on breast cancer risk relative to alcohol consumption and their social class. The research team conducted interviews with 50 Australian mid-life women (aged 45-64) from different social classes to explore their views on breast cancer risk and alcohol consumption.

According to Ward, the notion of 'candidacy' emerged from the understanding that there is a lay epidemiology of risk factors for diseases such as coronary heart disease and cancer. This is critical for determining whether people take heed of health promotion messages. The study aimed to understand women's logics about who is a breast cancer candidate and how this knowledge could be used to innovate public health responses, as well as reduce inequities in breast cancer prevention.

The research uncovered that women's perceptions of their own breast cancer risk are shaped by social class and their levels of agency to reduce alcohol consumption. Ward explained that women with limited access to resources, such as working-class women, were more likely than affluent women to identify risks that make them candidates for breast cancer. However, they often had limited chances to make changes due to their circumstances. On the other hand, affluent women tended to deny or mitigate risks associated with alcohol consumption, and some even trivialized the impact of breast cancer, believing that if it occurred in their lives, it could be easily managed.

Ward emphasized the importance of understanding social class differences when crafting public health messages about alcohol as a breast cancer risk. This would enable better resonance with women from varying social classes and could help reduce health inequities.

Interestingly, the study also found that middle-class women often struggled with the idea that alcohol, something they considered positive and enjoyable, could result in them becoming candidates for breast cancer, something negative. As a result, they tried to balance or counteract the risks from alcohol not by giving it up but rather with other 'compensatory' health-promoting behaviors.

Ward pointed out that the study offers a new opportunity to reduce inequities in breast cancer incidence by understanding the social class possibilities and limitations in women's perceptions of breast cancer risk. Tailoring public health messaging to resonate with women from different social classes and addressing underlying factors that propagate a need to drink alcohol could be crucial in tackling this issue.

By shedding light on the role of social class in women's perceptions of alcohol-related breast cancer risk, Professor Paul Ward and his team have opened up new avenues for equitable public health interventions that could ultimately save lives.

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