If you’d told me back then what was going to happen to me I’d probably have imagined that, if I was lucky enough to survive, I’d definitely be giving up alcohol. After all, chief medical officer Sally Davies has said that she thinks about the risk of breast cancer every time she has a glass of wine – and the inference of what she says is that the risks aren’t worth it, and she usually sticks to water – and hasn’t even had the disease itself. I have survived it and my cancer, for various reasons to do with the treatment options I took, isn’t a shoo-in for not coming back.
So why on earth do I still drink, when that nightmare has already visited me once? And there truly were terrible moments on my cancer journey; it was a scary mountain to climb, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else.
I guess what it comes down to is quite simply the importance of enjoying life. When I had cancer, I discovered that I didn’t just want to survive; I wanted to have fun, to make the most of every single day, and to enjoy happy occasions and meals with my friends and family.
Of course alcohol isn’t always synonymous with fun. But for me – and this was an entirely personal decision, which I wouldn’t suggest to anyone else should be how they ought to behave – drinking wine, beer or tequila adds a dimension to social occasions that I rather enjoy. And somehow it feels to me that it wasn’t worth surviving cancer if I’m going to limit my life to thinking, every time someone offered me a glass of something, about my breast cancer and the likelihood of it returning.
For the record, I was not, I don’t think, a heavy drinker: I had at least two, maybe three, glasses of wine on maybe four or five nights of the week. I work from home, and I’d often have a glass of wine while making the children’s dinner, to denote the kitchen table shift from work mode to home life; and then I’d have another glass, maybe two, with my husband when he came home from work.
The doctors who looked after me stressed that it was more likely to have been some sort of genetic predisposition to breast cancer, and alcohol was only an ingredient in the cocktail that caused my illness. They have always been at pains to point out that I shouldn’t feel I brought my cancer on myself; and for the record, too, I happen to know that all of them, who like me are women in their 50s, allow themselves a glass of wine on a fairly regular basis.
Having said all that, my drinking habits have definitely changed post-illness. I pass on that early evening glass of wine when I’m cooking these days; if I need something to mark the end of working mode, I have an alcohol-free beer. I very rarely drink alone, even when I’m working on an assignment and away from home, where in the past the bar would always beckon. I drink less, and usually within the government guidelines; but I didn’t go through what I went through to spend my precious time fretting over whether the next glass of wine could be the cancer trigger.
Life is too short to cut out something you enjoy in moderation, Dame Sally. And breast cancer isn’t the only threat in life: it can be a mistake, whether you’ve had this horrible disease or not, to allow it to dominate your life. If I thought about cancer every time I had a glass of wine, the way I see it cancer would have won. And in my life, it certainly hasn’t done that.