Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Booze and Breast Cancer Risk

The New York Times article about drinking and breast cancer in the NYT “Well” Department this morning is so annoying.

But first, let me say that all cancer coverage being hyped in the news these days is annoying. Take for instance a recent Jennifer Aniston ad. She wants us to buy a T-Shirt because, she says in the beginning of the ad, the money will help find a cure for cancer. But at the end of the ad, she says “100% of the money will go to fighting cancer”.

Fighting cancer and finding a cancer cure are two different things. Fighting cancer is giving money to pharmaceuticals for their chemo drugs, giving money to huge hospitals for radiation therapy, giving money to huge hospitals to fund their testing and technology departments.

Fighting cancer is not about finding a cure for cancer…far from it. Fighting cancer is about funding all the people and hospitals and doctors who are making a living off of cancer. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that, but it’s not the same as devoting energy and technology to finding a cancer cure. And ignoring the difference or exploiting the difference in confusing ways is unconscionable.

This morning, we read in the NYT that a new study at the Harvard Medical School has been “looking at the habits of more than 100,000 women over 30 years” which “adds to a long line of studies linking alcohol consumption of any kind” to breast cancer risk. The study has concluded that if a woman has more than three drinks a week of alcohol of any kind, she’s at risk for breast cancer.

The article has a few caveats. For instance, it says: “Like much of the previous research on alcohol’s risk and benefits, the new study was observational and lacked a control group, and it drew from self-reports, which can be unreliable. Nor was it able to determine whether changing one’s drinking habits over time – drinking a lot early on, for example, and then stopping at age 50 – made any difference.”

Another red light re the reliability of the study was: “Among the factors women will have to consider, experts say, are family history of heart disease and cancer, as well as their use of hormone therapies like estrogen. Alcohol may increase the risk of breast cancer in part by raising a woman’s levels of estrogen, the authors said.”

Translation in layman’s language: THE STUDY IS FLAWED.

This study is like saying 100,000 women ate pickles three times a week for 30 years and two-thirds of the women have developed colon cancer; we think there may be a connection but we’re not sure how many of the women were being treated for colon diseases or had a family history of cancer; however, we conclude that eating any kind of pickle puts women at risk for colon cancer. 

How about if the women in the Harvard Study started drinking because their doctors put them on estrogen therapy and the side effects were causing angst and depression? How about if there is no connection between booze and breast cancer but all the women in the study drank moderately and had a family history of cancer? How about if many of the women didn’t tell the truth and there was no way of checking their veracity?

How about if researchers exercised some caution and restraint before publishing conclusions that are suspect?

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