The studies are clear. I wish they weren’t. But alcohol causes cancer. Not everyone who drinks will get cancer, of course, but drinking wine, beer or a lovely gin and tonic, on a regular basis, increases your chance of getting cancer.
It also increases your chance of getting heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and stroke. But the thing that worries me most is cancer.
Cancer kills you, or it can. Cancer means you have to have horrible operations and treatments and lie awake at night, hearing your heart thump in your chest as you worry that you will die.
Cheers to that! Christina Patterson appreciates the risks of alcohol – but enjoys it too much
I know what that’s like. I had just turned 39 when I first found a lump in my breast. I was two days off my 46th birthday when a doctor told me that the cancer had come back. That time, I had to have an eight-hour operation, where they moved tissue from my stomach to replace the breast that had been lost.
I felt sick for weeks and couldn’t stand upright for months. I don’t want to go through anything like it ever again. Why, then, do I still drink?
The short answer is that it makes me happy. I really like a nice glass of wine, with a bowl of Kettle chips. I love the crisp tang of a New Zealand sauvignon. I love the peachy taste of a viognier, the citrusy first sip of a chablis.
I love champagne. Who doesn’t? I’m more likely to drink prosecco, of course, because I’m a journalist, not a director of Carillion. I love the taste. I love the bubbles. I love clinking a glass.
And do I stick to the one glass? Of course I don’t stick to the one glass. It’s nearly the end of January, but it certainly hasn’t been Dry January for me.
The chief medical officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, has urged women to ‘do as I do’ and think about the risks of breast cancer before deciding whether to have a glass of wine. And I do.
I understand the evidence. I know the difference between opinion and fact. I know that The Million Women Study, an ongoing study of women aged 50 and over, showed in 2009 that even ‘low to moderate’ consumption of alcohol is a ‘significant’ risk in the development of cancer.
Risk: The Million Women Study, a study of women aged 50 and over, showed in 2009 that even ‘low to moderate’ consumption of alcohol is a ‘significant’ risk in the development of cancer
But anyone who read the studies, and then looked at my drinking habits, might well think that Aperol spritz had addled what’s left of my brain.
I should make it clear that I am not an alcoholic. I rarely drink on my own. I don’t drink every day, but there are weeks when I’m out most nights and, on those nights, I have a couple of glasses of wine.
I will not be found lying half-dressed on a pavement, but in an average week, I will usually have more than the recommended maximum 14 units.
I drink wine because it makes me happy, and when I’m happy I am more likely to be healthy. I do not say this lightly. I have had a lot of ill health in my life and plenty of opportunities to learn.
I should make it clear that I am not an alcoholic. I rarely drink on my own. I don’t drink every day, but there are weeks when I’m out most nights and, on those nights, I have a couple of glasses of wine…
My health problems started when I was 13, with acne. My spots got so bad that my mother took me to the GP. I was given antibiotics, and I was hardly off them for the next 20 years.
Looking back, I’m not sure why I stayed on them, because they didn’t make my spots better. I think I was afraid that if I came off them, my skin would get worse. In fact, it got worse anyway.
When I was 23, my face exploded with giant pustules. Soon, I had throbbing lumps in places I didn’t know you could get spots.
A dermatologist gave me a very strong drug called Roaccutane, but it only made the acne worse. In the end, I was sent to a hospital for skin diseases, where I was blasted with ultraviolet light. It burnt off most of the spots, but it didn’t repair the scars.
Two years later, I developed pain in my ankles that spread up to my knees. The doctors did tests. They did loads of tests.
A year later, a receptionist told me over the phone that I had an autoimmune disease called lupus, which can cause inflammation to the joints, skin and other organs, as well as poor circulation and a rash on the face.
‘I drink wine because it makes me happy, and when I’m happy I am more likely to be healthy. I do not say this lightly. I have had a lot of ill health in my life and plenty of opportunities to learn’
Doctors aren’t clear about what causes it, and the symptoms can come and go. It was several years before I could walk more than a few yards without pain. I tried painkillers, steroid injections and an anti-malarial drug they give people with lupus. None worked.
Strangely, for me, drugs hardly ever work. What has been effective is therapy. When I started talking about my pain — both physical and emotional — in my mid-20s, I started to get better.
It was full on psychotherapy, the kind where the therapist hands you a box of tissues as you talk about your childhood. At first, I found it awkward and embarrassing, but as the months passed, the pain started to ease. It’s nearly 30 years since I first had those crippling pains in my knees. Most of the time since then I’ve been fine, but I’ve had relapses, and some have lasted for months.
And over many years of ill health, I have learned a lot about what makes me ill.
The U.S. writer Susan Sontag says in her book, Illness As Metaphor, that we shouldn’t talk about things like ‘battles’ with cancer, because it implies that, if you get cancer, it’s your fault.
Sometimes my body has felt like a battleground. I have also come to the conclusion that when I’m unhappy, I get ill.
In my book, The Art Of Not Falling Apart, I talk about my struggles with my health, as well as the challenges others face. Like my friend Winston, for example, who broke his back in an accident.
He was told that he might not walk again, but he decided ‘that’s not going to happen because how the hell am I going to play drums and ride my motorbike?’
That same afternoon, he somehow heaved himself out of bed and to the loo. Fifteen years later, he joined the Parachute Regiment in the Army Reserves.
Winston is an extreme example, but I believe that the general principle often holds. If you are happy and active, curious and want to get on with life, you have a better chance of getting better than if you aren’t and don’t.
If drinking wine means I won’t live till I’m 100, well that’s OK. I don’t have much of a pension and I can’t imagine that life at 100 will be that much fun.
Clare Gerada, a GP and former chair of the College of General Practitioners, agrees. ‘I think there’s probably a great deal of evidence that happiness has an effect on health,’ she says, ‘because we know that wellbeing is mediated through what’s called the cortisol system. This is linked to the release of adrenaline and stimulates activity called the fight or flight response.
‘Constantly being under stress or anxiety means that you always feel you’re about to take your driving test. It’s very tiring. If you are depressed, your body shuts down. You slow down, thoughts become sluggish, sleep is poor and so on.’
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I couldn’t sleep and I felt cold all the time. What I needed then was surgery, radiotherapy and drugs. Cancer is not for dilettantes.
If you have cancer, you can’t will yourself well. I do not believe that being unhappy causes cancer, but I believe that some of my health conditions — acne, insomnia, migraines, crippling joint pain — have flared up when I was low.
I have learned what makes me happy. And I’m happiest when I’m with people I like, having a good time. I like sparkling conversation, laughter — and, yes, wine.
My diet is relatively healthy. I don’t eat too much, though I do like coffee and cake. I’m not fat. I’m not a gym bunny, but I’ll happily go for a trot round the park. And I don’t smoke.
I know my vice. I like my vice. If drinking wine means I won’t live till I’m 100, well that’s OK. I don’t have much of a pension and I can’t imagine that life at 100 will be that much fun. I would rather enjoy every precious moment of my precious life, here and now.
The Art Of Not Falling Apart by Christina Patterson (£14.99) is published by Atlantic Books.