Alcohol, Exercise and Breast Cancer: Checking the Facts

The prestigious Journal of American Medical Association recently published an article linking even ‘light’ alcohol use to a ‘modest’ increase in Breast Cancer risk.  If you don’t have the time or inclination to read this well-written, well-documented study, you can read an article about the study here.  In the same week, a study was presented at a prestigious medical conference that indicated that sitting and inactivity can lead to an increase in Breast Cancer.  Two potentially important pieces of data in the fight against Breast Cancer released in the same week–what are the chances?  Aren’t we lucky that NOW we know what do to stop the Guys in the White Van from choosing us?

Before you go on a prohibition-style crusade to attack women who like to throw one back every now and again or start yelling at the women in your Breast Cancer support group to get up off their lazy tushies and jog in place through the meeting, let’s examine the information just a bit.  First, I must point out that these studies are specifically related to BREAST cancer.  Since I no longer have breasts, the information found in these studies no longer apply to me.  However, if your chassis is still OEM, this information does pertain to you.  The research DOES seem to support the idea that limiting one’s alcohol consumption can be beneficial for reducing Breast Cancer risk.  Research also supports the notion that daily exercise is a positive step in reducing Breast Cancer risk.

The problem with this type of research is that it, like other medical proclamations, must be approached and investigated with a critical eye before accepted as truth.  News outlets MAKE MONEY by presenting scintillating medical-porn as a one-size-fits-all approach to the treatment of a disease that is more a constellation of  symptoms sometimes than the classic definition of a disease.  When you first get your keys to your timeshare in CancerLand, a medical provider of some kind will tell you, ‘no two Breast Cancers are the same, so be careful adopting another person’s treatment plan as your own.’  They will then give you some sort of written documentation that almost negates the entire discussion of the uniqueness of individual Breast Cancers.  Patient Guides, as they are sometimes called, break down the major ways the Guys in the White Van get into your milk melons, charting your Cancer on a projected continuum of characteristics.  While they are helpful in showing a new patient where they ‘rank’ in terms of severity of their disease, research such as the alcohol and exercise studies create an opacity to the ‘truthiness’ of the report.

What is good about the alcohol study is that it was longitudinal–that is, over a long period of time.  The researchers followed a group of 100,000 women over 30 years.  At first blush (Ha, get it, like wine?  Blush?  No?) that seems to be an honorable size and time frame.  However, digging deeper into the quagmire that is academic medical research, we find the population was a cohort group of “mostly white nurses.”  This is where my faith in the study begins to break down.   Add to the fire the point that this study does not differentiate between types of alcohol imbibed, and I have to question the data.  Isn’t red wine supposed to be GOOD for us?  I mean, just last month it was reported that a super secret ingredient in red wine, resveratrol, “can actually stop breast cancer cells from growing.”  So which shall we believe?  In just one month wine goes from stopping Breast Cancer to increasing it?  From being the magic cancer eraser to the fuel that flames the fire?  Now I really need a drink!

Wait, before you sit back and read the rest of this blog, please stand up.  No, seriously, adjust your screen so you can stand.  Now sit down.  I just helped save your life, because prolonged sitting can increase Breast Cancer risk (colon caner as well, but there are other blogs out there that will deal with that part of the body.  I’m sticking to boobies!).  More news–It seems Breast Cancer is one of the types of cancers MOST IMPACTED BY INACTIVITY.  BE WARNED–regardless of an increase in activity later in the day, if you sit for a living Breast Cancer will swallow you up whole, spitting back only the spent shell of a previously bodacious pair of skin monkeys.  Get up OFTEN as a way to reduce your personal risk of Breast Cancer–but only if you are a post-menopausal woman.  As with the alcohol study, this research must be approached with a critical eye.  The cohort group examined in the exercise study was a group of post-menopausal women who exercised moderately-to vigorously every day.  When they were compared to a group of slothy post-menopausal women, they were found to have lower levels of C-reactive protein in their bodies.  C-reactive protein is a marker of inflammation.  Inflammation normally helps fight off infection, but chronic inflammation can lead to damaged cells and an increase in breast cancer risk.  Daily exercise, it seems, can reduce one’s cancer risk by 25 to 30%, with something as simple as a 30 minute walk.

Honestly, it is hard to argue with the exercise study, but being presented with so much information can be confusing.  Not only does the person with Breast Cancer have to deal with her disease of the body, she also has to deal with her dis-ease of the spirit–sometimes research such as this can cause someone going through Breast Cancer to feel as if somehow something THEY did or didn’t do caused them to be caught by the Guys in the White Van.  A woman will read research such as the alcohol study and think, “Holy _____!  I thought red wine was supposed to eat the Breast Cancer cells in my body!  I’ve been having a glass a night for a year==and NOW you tell me that I’ve given myself Breast Cancer?  These conflicting studies can impact the amount of compassion one feels for a person who really needs it.  Her friends and family might think to themselves, “Well, I guess she got what she deserved, drinking red wine every night for a year!”  Maybe they even add to the stress of the person with Breast Cancer and say something like, “Well, you know what caused it–it’s that drinking you do every night!  Stop enjoying that wine right now–it isn’t the cancer-cell-eating-Pac-Man-machine you think it is!  Your going to give yourself BREAST CANCER!”

Confusing?  I’d say so.

When presented with conflicting studies such as these two, it is important to take all information with a grain of salt.  If you find information that is consistent with what your oncologist has told you–like, “You need to exercise,” then you can probably concur that you should develop a deep and meaningful relationship with your walking shoes for 30 minutes a day.  Limiting alcohol to three drinks a week is probably rational in the greater scheme of things–unless you are drinking red wine, and then you can have a glass every day.  Again we are faced with conflicting data–and here is when it is important to consult an expert.  If the latest puffed-up study tells you to make a behavior change like giving up your nightly night cap, pass it by your oncologist before doing anything crazy.   You know how those dietary supplements that always seem too good to be true win their impending lawsuits?  With the phrase, “Before starting any diet or exercise regime, please consult your physician.”  In other words, if you don’t talk to your doc, don’t come crying to us!

Be good to yourself–‘moderation in all things’ should be your guiding mantra when it comes to preparing yourself for the onslaught of cancer information that accompanies a timeshare in CancerLand.  Many well meaning individuals, some medically educated, some not, will share their views of the cause your disease and how it should be treated.  It will be overwhelming and at times you will want to scream and run away–which is JUST what you want to do, for 30 minutes every day, probably before you have that victory glass of red wine, self-awarded every other day.  Just remember that these people probably have the very best intentions in sharing their thoughts with you, especially if you are paying them.  Even doctors’ advice should be considered with moderation, and if you are presented with data that seems crazy to you, like giving up red wine after being told it was the Breast Cancer-killing thing to do, ask.  If you are presented with data that seems to make sense in your world, like strapping on your Adidas, ask.  And certainly, if your Great Aunt Gladys tells you drinking a quarter cup of olive oil will help chase the Breast Cancer demons from your body, ask.  While it might not help with your treatment, it will make your grandmother happy.  Just remember, be a Breast Cancer Street Fighter–never rest in your dedication to being well informed.

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