Can I Drink Alcohol During Cancer Treatment?

Couple toasting with wine in cafe
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The use of alcohol can impact your treatment in a number of ways.

Bone Marrow Function

The first and most surprising effect that alcohol can have is in relation to how your ​bone marrow functions. Alcohol can actually interfere with healthy production of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets in your bone marrow. For patients with blood and marrow cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma, bone marrow function may already be strained as a result of their disease.

If you add that to the bone marrow damage that occurs as a result of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, the impact could be more dramatic and even more serious.

Sedative Effects

Alcohol, as you probably already know from experience, is a sedative. It helps to relax your body and has the potential to impact your sleep. However, as the result of your cancer, you might already be battling fatigue on a regular basis, and alcohol may make the problem even worse. If you are taking any medications to help control your pain or nausea, alcohol will also add to the sedative effects of those medications as well. In order to function and enjoy your quality of life, limiting or eliminating alcohol might make sense.

Irritation to Your Stomach

If you have been experiencing nausea as a side effect from radiation therapy or chemotherapy, you should also know that alcohol causes a similar type of irritation to the lining of your stomach and gastrointestinal tract as those therapies do.

This also includes patients who are experiencing oral mucositis or mouth sores. Drinking alcohol can worsen this side effect significantly.

Strain on the Liver

Many chemotherapy drugs are excreted from your body via your liver. The toxic effects of these drugs can put a real strain on the liver. Alcohol is also metabolized by your liver and drinking it will simply cause additional stress and possibly permanent damage to that organ.

Do You Need to Avoid Alcohol Completely?

So do you need to avoid alcohol altogether? Your doctor or healthcare provider is the best person to advise you on this matter. Different blood cancers may have very different courses. Some chronic leukemias and lymphomas may not require treatment initially, for instance, and the burden in terms of lifestyle changes that are recommended may be less significant. For the most part, it is recommended that you avoid drinking while you are undergoing treatment. If this is absolutely unacceptable to you, using small amounts ​in moderation may be approved by your specialist.

It is important that when you are discussing alcohol use with your healthcare team, you are upfront and honest about the quantity that you consume. If you drink on a regular basis, your team should know that so they can help you cut back on your intake slowly. Stopping alcohol abruptly can lead to serious health effects.

The American Cancer Society offers this statement on drinking alcohol during cancer chemotherapy:

As with most questions related to a specific individual’s cancer treatment, it is best for a patient to check with their health care team about whether or not it is safe to drink alcohol during or immediately following chemotherapy treatment. The doctors and nurses administering the treatment will be able to give specific advice about whether drinking alcohol is safe with particular chemotherapy drugs and/or other medications prescribed along with chemotherapy.

Doesn’t Alcohol Have Health Benefits?

Many studies have indeed suggested that health benefits might be associated with drinking in moderation. In particular, red wine has been widely theorized to have certain health benefits based on laboratory studies showing that substances in red wine may have anti-cancer properties. Resveratrol is one such substance, which can be found in grapes, raspberries, peanuts, and several other plant-based foods. According to the American Cancer Society, however, clinical trials in humans have not provided evidence that resveratrol is effective in preventing or treating cancer.

Some authors have suggested that alcohol is both a tonic and a poison. If drinkers would limit themselves to just a single drink, not necessarily daily, it could be that the health benefits might be considerable. Many prospective studies show that with moderate drinking, there is a lower risk of heart attack, ischemic (clot-caused) stroke, peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and death from all cardiovascular causes. It has been estimated that about 18.2 million Americans meet standard criteria for alcohol abuse or alcoholism, however; and, many drinkers are unable to limit themselves to meet study criteria for moderate drinking. Additionally, benefits to the heart and cardiovascular system could, in certain individuals, be offset by the risks of intake.

A Word From Verywell

Alcohol tends to be a part of society and culture on so many different levels that it may not be as simple as it sounds to abstain for health reasons after a cancer diagnosis. That said, there are certain people who should not have alcohol and certain clinical scenarios in which alcohol intake is ill advised. During treatment, alcohol can certainly have an effect on your therapy by contributing to and worsening side effects. Discuss your alcohol use with your physician or healthcare team to determine what amount, if any, is acceptable for your treatment plan.

Sources:

Druesne-Pecollo N, Tehard B, Mallet Y, et al. Alcohol and genetic polymorphisms: effect on risk of alcohol-related cancer. Lancet Oncology 2009;10(2):173-180

Tramacere I, Pelucchi C, Bonifazi M, et al. A meta-analysis on alcohol drinking and the risk of Hodgkin lymphoma. European Journal of Cancer Prevention 2012;21(3):268-273.

 

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