Anne Frank and us

The challenge of preserving art for posterity

Miep Gies, who died on Monday at the age of 100, was one of the few remaining people who had known Anne Frank. It is thanks to her that Anne's diary survived, after she collected the pages when the secret annexe was discovered and hid them, in hope of Anne's return, until Otto Frank came back. As The Diary of a Young Girl has never been out of print since, has sold millions of copies and has become a wider symbol of the Holocaust, it is difficult to imagine that, but for Gies, it could have easily been lost.

Many famous works have entered posterity by the skin of their teeth. Part of a Sappho poem was reused as an Egyptian mummy bandage. Diego de Landa and Bartolome de Las Casas preserved Mayan and Aztec oral culture by getting it down on paper. John Heminges and Henry Condell determined the way Shakespeare's plays have been handed down to us by having them included in the First Folio. By choosing The Marriage of Figaro for a performance, Joseph II prevented Mozart from carrying out his threat to burn the score. The Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom was missed by the rioters who stormed the Bastille where he wrote it. Kathleen Noonan stopped her father, Robert Tressell, from incinerating The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists after three publishing rejections by keeping the 1,600 hand-written pages in a box under her bed. The environment has also acted as a preservative; the Dead Sea Scrolls survived in dry desert caves for over a thousand years. Because of this, valuable links remain, through which we may reconnect with the past.

In the age of e-books, which lack the fragility of paper, but also their preciousness, and the Espresso Book Machine printing thousands of titles on demand in a few minutes, it may look as if the danger of literary vandalism has passed. But new threats to world's literary legacy and future will emerge. In a quiet act of friendship, Gies demonstrated how fundamentally fragile art is and how both its creation and survival depend wholly upon us.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.