As the NH21 Weekly review of world health news settled upon a report that Britons are drinking themselves to death, a classic Ella Fitzgerald track came to mind;

“It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it…” 

Apparently, Britons are among most at-risk in Europe for alcohol-related cancer; with British people consuming (a rather specific) 2.1 alcoholic drinks every day on average. (1)

Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) notes;

“These findings show clearly that because of current consumption levels in Britain we are some of the most at-risk people for developing these types of cancers.”

Adding;

“Alcohol is a group one carcinogen and while the evidence shows any level of drinking increases cancer risk, this risk increases in line with the level of consumption.” (2)

SAD BUT (only partly) TRUE

As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), cancer is a generic term for a large group of diseases that can affect any part of the body. One defining feature of cancer is the rapid creation of abnormal cells that grow beyond their usual boundaries, and which can then invade adjoining parts of the body and spread to other organs.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide (after cardiovascular disease), accounting for 8.8 million fatalities in 2015.

WHO states that modifying or avoiding key risk factors can significantly reduce the burden of cancer; adding that around one-third of all deaths from cancer are directly due to the five leading behavioural and dietary risks; being a high body-mass-index (excess weight), low intake of fruits and vegetables, lack of physical activity, tobacco and alcohol use. (3)

Cancer results from many contributing factors over a long period of time. The causes can be difficult to definitively identify because it takes years for these interdependent elements to culminate into a cancer diagnosis.

According to Dr Richard Béliveau, head of the Laboratory of Molecular Medicine in Montréal, Canada; the first beginnings of abnormal cell replication usually occur when we are just 15 years of age, and progress for several decades before presenting as a clinically significant tumour.

During this time there are many known factors called promoters (such as excessive alcohol consumption) which can speed up the process; while other factors called inhibitors (such as certain vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables) that appear to slow the process down.

Therefore, although we cannot pinpoint a single cause, we can identify cancer-causing agents (carcinogens) and cancer-promoting activities that encourage the development and spread of cancer; and work to reduce those factors in our lives. Although the potential causes of cancer are numerous; statistics indicate that they can be placed into the following groups:

  • Genetics and family history (5-10%)
  • Obesity and dietary habits (35%)
  • Environmental influences (25%)
  • Lifestyle factors (30%)

If we can keep our bodies healthy and avoid known cancer-causing agents, we can decrease the likelihood of getting cancer in the first place; and increase our chances of recovery if cancer does develop. In the words of nutritional consultant Phyllis Balch;

“If you go into battle unarmed you stand little chance of winning. But if you go in with a full coat of armour through the healthiest diet and lifestyle you have the best fighting chance to conquer cancer.” (4)

AND YET…

The Mediterranean Diet is a nutritional template inspired by the dietary patterns of Greece, Southern Italy, and Spain. There is much scientific evidence that regular adhesion to this diet lowers all-cause mortality and the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegeneration, and several chronic diseases.

Sweets, wine and frivolity top the food pyramid of a system designed to maximize the pleasures of eating and of being alive.

The principles of the Mediterranean approach to eating resonate strongly with many people because they are grounded in social eating, conviviality, and respecting traditional and localized culinary activities.

However, unlike their British counterparts, Mediterranean’s consume an enormous quantity and variety of fruit, vegetables and raw salads; which are rich in protective antioxidants. Also, unlike northern Europe, Britain and the USA; their diet has been less influenced by modern food technologies, meaning they eat far fewer processed foods, and considerably smaller quantities of red meat.

Doner Kebab anyone!?

There is a world of difference between and glass of wine with dinner and 2.1 daily pints on an empty stomach. The quality of the alcohol should also be taken into consideration. Small-batch, locally produced, oak-aged, organic wine is in no way comparable to a generic, factory-derived rum and coke.

And so, whilst the message that alcohol abuse causes cancer is welcomed, it should be considered within the wider paradigm that cancer stems from multiple factors; some of which we can control (i.e. amount and type of alcohol consumed), and some of which we cannot; such as genetics.

Further, medical science is finally coming to accept the relationship between body, mind and emotions; and the need for daily stress reduction strategies that are equally protective against cancer; which for some people, might be 2.1 glasses of alcohol whilst chatting with friends.

As always, a healthy dose of common sense can be an effective measure in protecting our health. For the data we can be grateful, for we are better served when we have access to information. For the definitive stats, tables, charts and graphs however, we might remember that things are never quite as clear as they first appear; and this, being human, comes with a significantly unquantifiable x-factor that science will simple never comprehend.

References:

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jul/04/britons-are-among-most-at-risk-in-europe-for-alcohol-related-cancer
  2. http://ahauk.org
  3. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs297/en/
  4. Phyllis A. Balch, 2010, Prescription for Nutritional Healing.