After the elation of becoming an MP in May 2015, Thangam Debbonaire was still getting used to life at Westminster when she got the bad news. “I was diagnosed with breast cancer on 16 June 2015,” says the Labour MP for Bristol West, recalling the date with calm clarity. Days later she had to forsake her new home at parliament and begin undergoing the rigours of chemotherapy. She finally returned, in good health, in March 2016. “Rosie Winterton, Labour’s chief whip at the time, said: ‘Come back when you’ve finished treatment.’”
Determined to carry on as normally as possible, she set up her constituency office, hired staff and worked as much as she was able. “Casework was done, emails were answered and constituency visits were made when I was in my good weeks,” says Debbonaire. “On a chemotherapy cycle the first week’s pretty awful. But on the second and third weeks I tended to do constituency work.” One of the emails she received then turned out to be fateful and life-changing.
“A publican in my constituency complained to me that the new safe drinking guidelines, which had been published in January 2016, had obviously been over-influenced by teetotallers. I was about to email this person back saying ‘yes, that sounds terrible. I’ll investigate’. But then I thought, ‘hang on, I’m not sending that reply until I’ve read the research,’’’ she recalls. Her inquiries proved revelatory.
“After reading a lot of research about alcohol I learned what a unit was and how to calculate it, for example. And I realised that there is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol consumption and that alcohol causes at least seven forms of cancer, including breast cancer. I didn’t know that before.”
Scientific research has produced enough hard evidence in recent years for charities such as Cancer Research UK and the World Cancer Research Fund to state with certainty that alcohol is a direct cause of seven forms of cancer: of the liver, colon, rectum, larynx, oropharynx, oesophagus and breast. Worryingly, though, opinion polls show that only small numbers of people know there is a causal connection between the substance and the disease. One survey last week found that only 10% mentioned cancer when asked which diseases and illnesses were linked to alcohol.
“After my treatment, I was at a course in Bristol run by Macmillan Cancer Support to help women who’ve had breast cancer with the emotional, physical and other impacts of the disease,” says Debbonaire. “The first thing most women wanted to know was: what do I have to do to reduce my risk of getting cancer again? The health practitioners there told us that one thing was reduced alcohol consumption. I wasn’t drinking anyway, what with chemotherapy and nausea, so I thought: that’s fairly easy, I’ll just not drink,” she says, sitting in her Westminster office.
She was approaching her 50th birthday. “I wasn’t teetotal, and I’d drunk all my life, mainly wine or a cocktail, but I’d never been a big drinker. I drank quite sparingly. The last time I’d been significantly merry was the night in February 2015 I gave up my job [with Respect, which helps perpetrators of domestic violence], went out with my colleagues and had cocktails. But I just decided it was easier then to have a default setting of ‘I won’t drink’ as a way of reducing my risk,” she recalls.
She wrote back to the publican, thanking him for raising the issue of alcohol. “I said: ‘I know your pub – I’ve drunk in your pub and I will do so again, though I’ll probably have an orange juice. I’m pretty sure that these new guidelines, from the chief medical officers of the four home nations, aren’t going to stop people going to your pub and you might want to think about offering a wider range of non-alcoholic drinks and snacks.’ He wrote me back a really nice email. He was really sweet and he didn’t argue, which I was really impressed by – he sort of took it on the chin.”
Their exchange of views, and her journey of discovery about alcohol, prompted other lifestyle changes too. She now runs three times a week, five kilometres on two weekdays in the various royal parks near Westminster and 10km every weekend in Bristol. She also eats far more fruit and vegetables.
“The last thing I do every night is chop up four portions’ worth of vegetables – red, yellow or green peppers, carrots and courgettes – put them in bags and during the day reach for them, rather than biscuits.” Angela Merkel did something similar a few years ago to help her lose weight.
But her new-found knowledge about alcohol’s potential toxicity has also unleashed an almost missionary zeal to raise awareness about its role as a cause of cancer, using her platform at Westminster. She is seeking a parliamentary debate and planning a campaign of oral and written questions to ministers on the subject. She is also working with alcohol and cancer charities and is keen to see graphic warnings put on cans and bottles of wine, beer and spirits, warning drinkers that alcohol and cancer are linked, modelled on those seen on cigarette packets.
“The two most dangerous drugs – alcohol and tobacco – are both entirely legal,” says Debbonaire, an ex-smoker, with a mixture of disgust and wonderment. She reels off a list of alcohol-related harms, including broken marriages, rotted livers and injuries caused or sustained. She is keen to tackle what she describes as “widespread ignorance” that leads to disease and death.
For example: “Of the many MPs across all parties I’ve spoken to about alcohol and cancer, the only ones who knew about the link with breast cancer were those who had had the disease themselves.”
Did her moderate drinking cause her cancer? “I don’t know if my particular cancer was causally related to alcohol, [but the] chances are reasonable that there was a causal link. My dad died of bowel cancer, which is one of those linked to alcohol. Two of my aunts had breast cancer. I had an alcoholic grandfather in India and other relatives in India who died of alcohol-related diseases. So alcohol has caused my family, and me as part of that, great harm.”
She is appalled at parliament’s intimate relationship with alcohol. “Yes, I worry about the drinking culture at Westminster. There are – what? – eight or 10 bars? There’s free alcohol at receptions. I’m concerned that alcohol is built into the parliamentary way of working. With late-night votes you’re certainly aware that some people have been drinking. This is not a moral judgment; I worry about colleagues’ health because of the lifestyle in this place. Alcohol is worryingly prevalent.
“In my third or fourth week as an MP, just before I was diagnosed with cancer, but when I knew it was a possibility because I’d already found the lump, Charlie Kennedy died in his early fifties. He comes here to Westminster as a young man for the first time [after being elected in 1983 at the age of 23], finds this [drinking] culture with, you know, ten million bars or whatever there were in those days, late nights, overnight sittings. What’s he going to do?
People said that the smoking ban was nanny state nonsense. I said it too… but it has helped people to quit
“Mr Speaker has encouraged the provision of mental health support [for MPs], which is very good,” she adds. “I’m quite idealistic about parliament. I think it ought to be a place where high standards are set – not just on expenses and sexual harassment, but on health and wellbeing, too. I would be delighted if there were more gyms and fewer bars.”
Debbonaire knows fellow MPs may think her a puritanical bore. “I’m not trying to kill anyone’s joy. I think alcohol can be a lovely thing. I had a glass of champagne at my niece’s wedding in September – though only one. But I’ve seen my own dad deteriorate from bowel cancer and visited a liver ward in Bristol where people in their 20s or 30s look 30 or 40 years older from drinking.”
She acknowledges that some will portray her as a nanny state ideologue. “People probably said seatbelts and the drink-drive limits were nanny state nonsense. They definitely said it about the smoking ban; I said it about the smoking ban. But seatbelts and not drinking and driving have saved countless lives, and the smoking ban has helped people to quit.
“Apart from the link with cancer, alcohol causes a massive drain on the NHS, costs lots to the police and the courts and affects the economy by causing lost days at work.
“Why wouldn’t we want to shift that behaviour? Nanny state? Well, I’m a Labour politician. I’m a social reformer, not a libertarian rightwinger. Interfering, for the common good, is what we do,” she says firmly.