Last month, as I ran between classes, meetings and the general chaos that we call shopping period, my mother texted me to let me know she was at the doctor’s — again. The regular mammogram she’d done in December had come back showing something suspicious. Seminars, lunch dates and work shifts lost their urgency for a few hours. My family’s world slowed down as we waited to hear back about the results of her follow-up scan. Thankfully, the mass was benign. We all breathed sighs of relief. The week returned to normal: once again, my pending schedule became my largest source of stress.
That weekend, I headed out to a birthday party with some friends, and drank.
Who doesn’t relate to the desire to blow off some steam after the first week of shopping period? It was a fun night, undoubtedly. But days later, I marveled at the disconnect in my own head between my mother’s health scare and my choice to drink that night. In recent months, the links between alcohol and breast cancer have become even more convincing and incredibly terrifying.
For the most part, people base their criticisms of heavy drinking on the social consequences of consumption. Much has been written about the alcoholic grey zone surrounding many cases of sexual misconduct and assault. Anyone following the national news of last fall remembers that Yale’s very own Brett Kavanaugh ‘87 LAW ‘90 publicly denied that his drinking led to instances of sexual violence. When we do discuss the health risks of drinking, we typically focus on short-term incidents like alcohol poisoning, concussions and head injuries, or overdoing it and spending the night at Yale Health. But it seems like conversations about the long-term health risks of even moderate drinking are few and far between—reserved for parental lectures and trips to the doctor, perhaps. This must change.
Drinking has long been linked to many types of cancer, including cancers of the oral cavity, ovaries, stomach and colon. In fact, the World Health Organization officially declared alcohol a carcinogen in 1988. Recent studies have established a particularly strong link between breast cancer and moderate alcohol consumption (defined by the Center for Disease Control as one drink a day for women). A 2018 meta-analysis by the International Agency for Research on Cancer found support for this link across more than 100 studies. Last month, the CDC explicitly listed “limiting alcoholic drinks” as a New Year’s resolution to reduce the risk of breast cancer. If this isn’t already alarming enough, consider the fact that many believe that moderate alcohol consumption has significant health benefits: “a glass of red wine a day is good for your heart.” Doctors and researchers are skeptical of these claims, which are often only supported by anecdotal evidence and mask the more serious risks of drinking.
I have been shocked to discover how few students are aware of these links. Some of my friends do research on cancer at the Yale School of Medicine, others have family histories of cancer. Yet all but one have been surprised to hear about these new (and some older) studies. Yes, everyone knows that drinking is “bad,” but we like to maintain a vague awareness of specific health risks, probably because the details would scare us. But drinkers — especially those with a higher risk of certain conditions, like women with family histories of breast cancer — must be informed of these realities. We are the next generation of health professionals, scientists and policymakers. It will be up to us to devote time, money and attention to continuing these research efforts. We cannot neglect to research the risks of drinking just because alcohol is, in many ways, integral to social culture.
My friends may read this and call me hypocritical; I still drink on occasion, and don’t intend to stop completely. Doing so would be unrealistic and probably futile for most people — I have tried to give up alcohol completely, even though I am hardly a heavy drinker. But my will tends to dissolve in the face of a pregame or an open bar. This brings me to my final point: the most important thing we, as students, can do right now is ensure that those who prefer not to drink can abstain comfortably (more non-alcoholic drinks at parties!) Drinking should not be a tool for exclusion. We must be conscious of fostering a social climate where choosing not to drink — or drinking in moderation — is an option for every student on our campus.
Maya Juman is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .