When Shona was diagnosed with mouth cancer at the end of 2006, the consultant told her it was almost certainly linked to the amount of alcohol she drank. Fifty years old and living alone in Chelsea in London since her divorce ten years earlier, she had developed the habit of drinking three glasses of red wine each evening. A primary school teacher who went home for lunch each day she often drank a glass at lunchtime too. At the weekends, she’d drink a little more than on weekdays.
Stunned by the cancer diagnosis, it was only later that she questioned her consultant about the link with drinking. “I’d thought the risk of cancer was related to smoking” she said “and I’ve never smoked.”
Michael Douglas, who completed his course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy for cancer of the mouth, neck and throat this year famously told David Letterman that he put his illness down to alcohol use and smoking.
Shona’s consultant told her that although the risk is indeed greater in people who drink and smoke, men and women who drink regularly without smoking are neverthless still more likely to develop cancer of the mouth, neck and throat than those who don’t. For women, the risk is around 1.5 times greater and for men it’s twice as high as for non-drinkers.
Like millions of people who develop alcohol-related health problems, Shona didn’t see herself as a particularly heavy drinker and certainly not as an alcoholic. Her alcohol use didn’t interfere with her work and had become an habitual part of her social life. Her drinking was, however, damaging her health. She had no obvious symptoms when she went for a routine medical check in 2006 and in fact thought she was in good health – but her doctor spotted a small suspicious patch in her mouth and sent her to a Harley Street clinic where the consultant quickly diagnosed cancer and operated. Although Shona wouldn’t have been classed as an alcoholic, she was one of millions who regularly drink more than the recommended number of units of alcohol.
In Britain, the National Health Service recommends that men should not regularly drink more than 3 or 4 units a day. For women the limit is 2 to 3 units a day. It can be difficult, however, to figure out just how many units of alcohol you drink in a week. A host refills your glass at dinner or you pour yourself a glass of wine while you’re cooking or you accept a glass of brandy at the end of a meal in a restaurant… There’s no easy way to be sure you’re within recommended limits. Glass sizes are varied and different drinks have widely differing alcohol content.
A 25ml glass of 40% proof spirit, for example, contains one unit of alcohol . A pint of 4% proof lager contains 2.3 units. A 175ml glass of 13% proof wine also contains 2.3 units. It’s very easy to exceed safe limits even if you are never ‘drunk’. (The unit calculator at the end of this article will let you discover how many units you drink in an average week if you’re curious to know.)
On top of the risks of developing several different cancers – including mouth cancer and breast cancer – regularly drinking too much alcohol can give rise to liver problems, reduced fertility, high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack. Pregnant women using alcohol can seriously harm their baby.
The more you drink, the greater your health risk. Apart from the developing health problems which drinkers may be unaware of for some years, drinking 3 or 4 units of alcohol on a daily basis is likely, though not guaranteed, to result in some obvious alcohol-related problems such as depression, low energy levels, weight gain, disturbed sleep patterns and sexual problems. Some drinkers are prone to argue or pick fights when they’ve been drinking and that can easily disrupt or destroy relationships with family and friends.
With Christmas approaching, many people who drink alcohol socially and enjoy a drink will be looking forward to some great food accompanied by good quality wines. Wonderful Scotch and Irish whisky will be given and received as presents. Champagne corks will pop – even in the financial crisis people will spend money at Christmas and New Year. And when January 2011 rolls around many will decide, yet again, to lose weight – and cut down on their drinking. They’re not bad New Year’s resolutions to have, even for those of us who are by no means fundamentalist about eating and drinking. Many of us appreciate good wine or real ale or whisky from the misty Scottish Highlands and Islands and are not about to give those pleasures up. Living in France, I thoroughly enjoy many of the fine red wines from the vineyards of Bordeaux, Chateauneuf du Pape and the Rhone valley. All things in moderation however, and it’s a good idea to check how much we’re drinking and cut back if we’re starting to exceed recommended limits too often.
There are plenty of online resources to help people get started. The first website listed below will calculate how much you drink on a weekly basis if you don’t already know for sure. The other websites listed are gateways to masses of information and practical help.
Shona was my friend since we were both 10 years old. As adults we’d meet for dinner and share a bottle of wine over a good meal but I never – ever – saw her even slightly drunk. And yet alcohol was quietly damaging her health and, if her consultant was right, alcohol provoked the cancer which killed her. After two gruelling operations which left her in pain, unable to speak and with difficulty swallowing, the cancer returned in 2009.
In 2010 she died in her comfortable bed in her pretty London home. She was buried on a lovely spring day – her 54th birthday.
** To see how much you drink weekly go to: http://www.drinking.nhs.uk/questions/unit-calculator/ **