Alcohol and Cancer: The Tragedy of Michael Douglas

It has been several weeks since Michael Douglas announced that he has advanced throat cancer. The media buzz has faded and Michael is left to his five per week radiation treatments and living with the fear that he has a deadly disease.

Michael has squamous cell carcinoma of the throat which has spread to lymph nodes in the area. The word “squame” is a latin word that means “plate”, describing the plate or scale-like cells of the top layer of the mucosa, or lining, of the mouth and throat. A mutation produced a malignant squamous cell and it grew into a tumor. At some point, malignant squamous cells from this tumor were able to invade through the wall of a lymphatic channel and traveled to local lymph nodes where they implanted and grew. Likewise, these cells can invade other lymphatics and blood vessels and travel or metastasize to distant sites in the body.

How did this first mutation happen to begin with?

Chemicals inhaled or ingested caused damage to the DNA of mucosal cells and produced a cancerous mutation. In the case of squamous cell carcinoma of the throat, tobacco smoke and alcohol are the two major causes. Almost everyone is familiar with tobacco as a cause of cancer, but not many people are aware of the cancer-causing potential of alcohol. Alcohol is not carcinogenic (cancer-causing) in and of itself. It’s first metabolic breakdown product, acetaldehyde, however is. Bacteria in the mouth and throat break alcohol down to acetaldehyde and it bathes the mucosa. Eventually, it may produce a cancer. Since alcohol travels down the entire length of the gastrointestinal tract, it is not surprising that alcohol contributes to the causation of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, colon, and rectum. It has also been implicated in causing breast cancer, liver cancer, and, most recently, prostate cancer.

You can read more about alcohol and it’s role in producing cancer in my book, The Sobering Truth. You can also read about my friend Scott and his battle with throat cancer. It will give you some idea of the battle Michael Douglas is facing.

Our prayers go out to him.