Have you got the guts to give up alcohol for a month? That’s the challenge put down by Cancer Care UK. Why not help yourself feel better after the excesses of the Festive Season and raise some money for important research?

There’s no surprise that alcohol intake tends to increase in the run-up to the Festive Season, what with all the parties, meals out and celebrations. An occasional blow-out shouldn’t cause you any great problem – provided you are not driving – but it’s important to keep an eye on your overall alcohol consumption. Drinking is not as harmless as we once thought it was.

Alcohol contributes about 4% to cancers. Even a low intake brings some risk of cancer, although keeping to the guidelines should minimise this. As intake rises, the risk increases for liver problems as well: long-term ill health from liver damage is an increasing problem in the UK. Drinking brings an increased risk of accidents. And, of course, there’s also the social side. Uninhibited social behaviour can quickly get out of hand.

All round, the personal, social and health costs of drinking are costing us a lot – far more than the money available for research in tackling the problems.

In an effort to raise awareness – and to raise money for research – Cancer Care UK has challenged people to go for an alcohol-free January, a “dryathlon”. Their website www.dryathlon.org.uk can help you calculate how much you are spending on alcohol. If we were all to give them what we save during one month without alcohol, this would be a major boost for important research on preventing and treating alcohol-related and other cancers. Better still, get others to join in or to sponsor you!

Best of luck.


Periodic screening for diseases and health check-ups seem a good idea. Spotting warning signs early can save lives and help prevent serious illness. Cervical screening, for example, has significantly reduced deaths from cervical cancer. And watching out for the precursors of heart attacks has led to many people taking action to reduce their likelihood of getting one.

But it is not universally agreed that all periodic screening is beneficial. Prostate cancer is one of the commonest cancers in men but screening for it has become mired in controversy over beliefs and facts – not all of which are firmly established even now. Early detection of bowel cancer is widely advocated in North America but less so in the UK. Questions are even being asked about breast screening, which until recently was thought to be beneficial.

Why the doubt about check-ups? They bring benefit when they can detect signs of illnesses for which there is good evidence that doing so can help stop the condition progressing. Unfortunately, even with all the modern methods of detection and treatment, achieving this aim is far from straightforward. Over-diagnosis and over-treatment are not free from hazard. Over-diagnosis increases patients’ anxiety unnecessarily, and unwarranted treatment carries risk. What is the benefit of detecting conditions where the value of treatment is questionable, such as the continuing uncertainty over prostate cancer screening? Or where the there are questions over what actually is the best treatment, such as how vigorously Type2 diabetes should be treated?

To help doctors and patients, the Cochrane Collaboration and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence have been compiling the best possible evidence base for making rational decisions about screening. A recent Cochrane review has resulted in some provocative questions about the value of periodic health checks.

Researchers pooled together all the available high quality studies (excluding participants over 65 years old). Altogether, these studies included 183,000 participants in 16 trials, of which nine gave data on deaths. The analysis, which looked specifically at heart disease and cancer, showed that periodic screening led to an increase in the number of new diagnoses, as would be expected – but they found no overall benefit for ill health or death rates!

So, what’s to be done?

First, anyone who has symptoms of any degree should seek medical advice. These findings in no way change this. Second, those enrolled in schemes for cancer prevention, diabetes detection, blood fat monitoring or surveillance for high blood pressure should continue attending.

But the idea that the human body should have periodic checks like the MOT for cars remains uncertain for those under 65. (The study recognised that there could be value in regular check-ups for those over this age.) Much depends on your personal attitude to risk. Some people may gain reassurance from check-ups, while others may become unnecessarily worried. For medical practitioners there’s a continuing need to look critically at what they are doing.


Link to review: BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e7191


© 2012 How to Live to 110 Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha