The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Serpentine Gallery, London W2, Lygia Pape Magnetized Space 7 December- 19 February 2012

Lygia Pape (1927-2004) was a leading Brazilian artist and a founding member of the Neo-Concrete movement, which was dedicated to the insertion of art into everyday life. The exhibition presents work from throughout Pape's career, including early drawings and poems.

Comedy

Union Chapel, London N1, Live at the Chapel 3 December

Comedic genius Daniel Kitson returns to the Chapel to MC a great bill which features hilarious American duo The Pajama Men, Edinburgh Comedy Award nominee Nick Helm, Alex Horne and Marcel Lucont. Doors open at 6.30pm and the show begins at 7.45pm.

Music

Jazz Café, London NW1, Pharoah Sanders 7-8 December

Head to Camden Town to watch a rare performance by the jazz saxophone legend. The Grammy Award-winning artist influenced the development of free jazz.

Talks

The Royal Institution of Great Britain, London W1, Ghosts of Christmas Lectures Past 3 December

This festive evening of music and science pays tribute to over 180 years of Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. A group of science-lovers inspired by the lectures will reminisce about some of their favourite talks from the past. The evening features Robin Ince, Simon Singh, Matt Parker, Adam Rutherford, Helen Keen, Andrea Sella, Helen Arney, Bruce Hood and Mark Miodownik.Tickets cost £30.

Theatre

Duke of York's Theatre, London WC2, Backbeat until 24 March 2012

Backbeat is an adaptation of the 1994 film, directed by Iain Softley on the birth of the Beatles, which had its West End premiere in October. It focuses on the intriguing triangular relationship between the band's original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, his best friend John Lennon and the German photographer Astrid Kirchherr. The stage show is co-written by Softley and Stephen Jeffreys and directed by the award-winning David Leveaux, with musical direction by Paul Stacey.

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.