Cancer and the Cocktail: Delicious or Deadly?


A breast cancer survivor ponders the dangers in a drink.

My own cancer has forced me to make difficult decisions from time to time. And as the final days of the holiday season descend upon us with champagne and celebration, I find myself, as a guy three years into his breast cancer diagnosis, facing a difficult dilemma and asking “To drink, or not to drink? That is the question.

There are a number of contemporary theories exploring this very point. Is it safe for cancer survivors to drink alcohol? And what type of cancer is most likely to be impacted by that holiday libation?

The facts are still murky, but a team of researchers at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health has distilled the current information available into useable numbers, and turned it into a compelling study. The bottom line seems to be that “heavy drinking has been linked to increased risk of several cancers, including cancer of the colon, female breast, oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, liver and esophagus, and possibly to a higher risk of cancer of the stomach, pancreas, lung and gall bladder.”

You can read an overview of that report, as published by CURE, here.

I presume that the only reason “female breast cancer” is highlighted in that report is because male breast cancer is understudied and often overlooked. There are relatively few clinical studies in which male breast cancer survivors are invited to participate.

Heavy drinking is usually defined this way: for men, more than four drinks on any day or 14 per week. For women, it is more than three drinks on any day or seven per week.

The word “moderation” comes in handy to give us permission to test the boundaries of our drinking habits. Friends sometimes say to me, “I eat red meat, but only in moderation” as if the word itself is a legitimate excuse that allows us to adopt behaviors that we know in our hearts to be unhealthy. Despite my vegetarian diet, I take no offense from someone preferring an animal-based diet, but you either eat meat, or you don’t. By the same logic, you either drink alcohol or you don’t. And so, it’s clear to me that even though I practice “moderation” I am, in fact, a cancer survivor who drinks alcohol. And so the issue again becomes a choice of risk over pleasure.

When it comes to making wise decisions regarding our own health and wellbeing, there is much to ponder, especially since many of us have been lucky enough to live through the “low-fat” “no-sugar” and “margarine-over-butter” crazes. Perhaps it’s wise to take it all “with a grain of salt” as they say, but even that has been touted as a health risk.

In the end, it may be prudent to consider all the evidence (which sometimes changes) to make the best choices for ourselves. As for me, where a cold beer with friends is concerned, I choose the moderation route for now. Balancing life’s little pleasures with life’s hidden pitfalls is a personal choice for all of us. Consider the facts as presented. Consider the risks. And consider the joy of toasting a report of “no evidence of disease” with a glass of bubbly held high.

Regardless of the choice you make for yourself, let me propose a toast for all of us who have cancer in our lives.

“Here’s to your health!”

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