ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — According a new self-reported (more on that later) survey, women are drinking more during the pandemic.
Additionally, according to the survey, many of these women who reported drinking more, a large percentage of them don’t know that alcohol is carcinogenic.
The survey lists these as three keys takeaways:
- 44% percent of the women contacted by “SurvivorNet” reported that they were drinking more
- Nearly 70% of women say they are not aware there is an association between drinking alcohol and an increased risk of breast cancer
- 37% of women surveyed said they’ve increased their alcohol intake over the last eight months through the pandemic, and 37% also expected that their alcohol consumption would increase during this past holiday season
- 68% of women said they would drink less – or stop completely – if they knew alcohol led to an increased risk of breast cancer
To make a little more sense of these results, as well as a breakdown of alcohol, cancer, and what surveys like this really mean, News 8 spoke to Dr. Farhan Imran. He’s a medical oncologist at The Lipson Cancer Center at Rochester Regional Health. As medical oncologist, he works with patients who have a wide range of cancers.
Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What was your first reaction to this survey? How do these surveys compare with medical studies?
It’s very common for us to see these kinds of studies, and many of our patients have read studies or surveys like this, and they come to us with questions. Now, any medical research that is done, we have to follow a lot of routes. There’s so many rules and regulations in checks and balances. That is very important because that gives weight to the results of those studies, and that is how in a systematic way, when professionals are giving advice to our patients, we can give advice based on validated data.
But these kinds of surveys are they have their own importance; they bring out these questions. We as physicians or scientists, don’t put too much emphasis on the results of these surveys as the truth. But we think of it as question generating issues, which we can then take and then put it through the regular research process.
These surveys are also reflective of the general perception of the population, but they could always be very skewed. For example, it depends on who responded to the survey, what was the cohort, and what that person was thinking that day when they responded.
So that’s how we always take it with a grain of salt.
I really liked what you said about while this survey might not be the most accurate or the most precise thing, it does sort of give you a frame of reference to ask a question. In talking to your patients, have you noticed that your patients drink a little bit more or drinking less? Have you noticed a change when you have asked your patients that question?
I wouldn’t say it’s as prevalent as it sounded from this survey, but it definitely is out there increased amount of alcohol intake.
One key thing is that people are usually not very forthcoming when it comes to telling other people about their alcohol intake. You’d be surprised that when we teach our medical students to take a medical history — which is 90% of the art of medicine — whenever somebody tells you about the amount of alcohol they intake, you just multiply it by two.
People very often and often unintentionally underestimate the amount of their alcohol intake. Many people know the limits, many people know the alcohol content of different beverages… But it’s very common for if you’re pouring a glass of wine, it may not be the standard amount. It may be twice that amount, or you may have had three beers — you may think you may have had three beers last night — but when you actually kind of can start calculating, you may easily have had five.
So because of all those reasons, I would absolutely not be surprised at all if people’s intake has gone up during the pandemic.
Have you noticed men or women drinking more?
I don’t think anybody can specifically tease out men versus women, unless if an excellent study is done. And also when patients are coming in, although we ask everyone about their alcohol intake, we’re not like measuring it in a way so that we could say men are drinking more than women or vice versa.
I would say that people who used to have jobs where you had to go to work, and so many people now are working from home, this is a big difference in how they live their life. So there are changes coming in, and there are so many people where you’re just sitting at home, and there’s nothing as much to do. It’s very easy to just open that cabinet and have your drink. And then one leads to another.
And then, are you seeing that people are not really understanding that alcohol is carcinogenic?
It could be true. I think it’s partly that alcohol is so culturally acceptable.
I would liken it to smoking, let’s say 30 to 40 years ago. Now we did not live that time, but if you watch movies or if you read novels, or if you talk to people from that time, smoking was just so culturally acceptable to a point that we have heard that surgeons used to be performing surgery with one hand and smoking with another…
But now after all those carcinogenic potential of tobacco has, has known and people understand that now it’s everywhere. If you buy a pack of cigarettes, those pictures, those very disturbing pictures of diseases will be there.
Alcohol is maybe not as carcinogenic as smoking, but if you look at the overall effects of alcohol, not just medical and not just on cancer, but on all other organ systems… But also the other interpersonal behavioral legal issues, the composite issue that I think there is required a cultural shift towards, alcohol not being as culturally acceptable.
Although if common sense tells you that alcohol does, whenever it goes in, it is going to damage the body. And from where I’m sitting from, from where I see my patients, either cancer patients or non-cancer patients, many people are under the assumption that if they exercise and if they eat well, and if they have an otherwise healthy lifestyle, then it doesn’t matter. That healthy lifestyle with otherwise cancel the drinks.
If they drink a lot, a little bit more heavily, but that is not true. The more alcohol that you put inside that body, the more damage it will do.
I was about to say, is that cancel culture? When we say something as a carcinogenic, what does that really mean? And then when it comes to alcohol, do we have enough data to say, well, drinking alcohol might more specifically cause the rates of specific cancers?
Excellent question. So the answer to question number one is so carcinogen; carcinoma is the old name, medical name, perhaps Latin origin of cancer.
Our body is composed of cells, which are normal and healthy. If you look at them under the microscope, they look very healthy. What cancer is that that cell starts looking abnormal: abnormal shape, abnormal characteristics, and it keeps growing and doesn’t know when to stop.
A carcinogen is any substance, which will change a normal cell into an abnormal cancer set. Now, certain substances are very well known carcinogens, the biggest one being nicotine. So basically if you were to do an experiment, if you take a normal cell, and if you expose it to a carcinogen, whether it’s nicotine or asbestos or several other non carcinogenic, that will turn that normal scent into an abnormal cell.
Alcohol — the medical name for it is ethanol — and it degrades acetaldehyde and that is known that it can change a normal cell into an abnormal cancer cell. So yes, there is evidence that it can do that.
There is evidence that the more the exposure, the higher amount of alcohol, the more carcinogenic it can be. So not only does it matter whether you drink or not, but it also matters how much you drink.
In terms of studies, there have been numerous studies done, and there’s a kind of a study called the meta-analysis. What a meta-analysis is that if there are several small studies here and there, then some researchers sit down, and they get all those studies and they pull them together and they try to get the results all in one place.
So there have been multiple meta-analysies, and other studies where they have shown that alcohol intake most definitely increases the risk of a variety of cancers. The cancers that are at highest risk are the cancers of what we call the head and neck, which includes the lip and the tongue and the larynx and the esophagus, the food by the stomach, the small intestine, and alcohol has shown to increase risk of breast cancer. Alcohol increases the risk of liver disease guard, cirrhosis, which substantially increases the risk of liver cancer. So these are the primary cancers, which are high risk.
The risk for head and neck cancer is so high with the use of alcohol, combined with smoking, that anybody who had a neck cancer who walks into a room, we automatically kind of start thinking: “start with the alcohol and smoking history.” That’s how big the association is.
So definitely there is risk out there that does not mean that if you are drinking moderately and responsibly, that your risk will go to a point that you will definitely get cancer… But it is true that people who do not drink at all totally abstain, they will have lower risk, even if you are drinking a very moderate or a smaller amount of alcohol.