Alcohol During and After Cancer Treatment

Once you are diagnosed with cancer and begin undergoing treatments, your dietary needs may change. The foods and drinks you consume may affect your cancer treatments, which symptoms and side effects you experience, and boost or weaken your sense of well-being.

Key takeaways:
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    Drinking can create chemicals in the body that make cells more likely to turn cancerous.
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    It’s possible that drinking may shorten the lifespan of those living with cancer, although more research is needed in this area.
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    Alcohol may interfere with some treatments, making them less effective or worsening their side effects.
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    Ask your doctor whether alcohol is safe in combination with your cancer treatment plan.

In general, too much alcohol is never a healthy thing. However, it may be an especially good idea for people with cancer to avoid drinking. Limiting how much alcohol you drink may help you feel better and experience better outcomes.

Alcohol and cancer risk

Drinking can make cancer more likely to develop. This occurs because the liver breaks down alcohol and forms acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical. Acetaldehyde can damage the genes in your cells. When genes stop working normally, cells may start growing too quickly and avoid death, leading to a tumor. Alcohol can also prevent the body from absorbing important vitamins and minerals that can help minimize cancer risk.

The more alcohol you consume, the greater your chances of being diagnosed with cancer. In particular, alcohol increases your risk of tumors in the head and neck, liver, colon, breast, or esophagus (the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach). Your risk may increase further if you also smoke or use tobacco products.

Drinking alcohol can also make it more likely that you will develop secondary cancers (tumors that form in other locations after the first cancer has developed). Limiting or avoiding alcohol may help reduce the risk of additional cancer diagnoses for those who are currently undergoing treatment.

Cancer outcomes and drinking

Many studies have found that people with cancer who drink more may not live as long as those who avoid alcohol. People who drink regularly may have higher levels of proteins that help cancer cells grow and spread. Alcohol may also weaken the immune system, and immune cells play important roles in helping fight cancer.

Some research, however, has found similar outcomes between people who drink and those who don’t. How alcohol affects cancer varies between different cancer types and even from person to person.

Alcohol may affect treatment effectiveness

It’s always a good idea to avoid heavy drinking while undergoing cancer treatments — this won’t offer you any benefits, and it may hurt your health. However, an occasional glass may be okay depending on which therapies you are using.

Alcohol can change the way some medications work or make them less effective. This is true for both anti-cancer drugs such as chemotherapy and targeted therapy as well as other medications that you may be taking to minimize side effects. For example, combining alcohol and certain painkillers may cause stomach ulcers or liver damage.

Ask your health care team whether alcohol is safe to drink alongside your list of medications. Try not to drink more than what your doctors recommend.

Alcohol impacts treatment side effects

Alcohol can worsen some of the side effects caused by cancer treatments like chemotherapy or radiation therapy, including:

  • Dry mouth.
  • Mouth sores or ulcers.
  • Sore throat.
  • Swallowing problems.
  • Dehydration.
  • Nausea.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Changes in urination, including frequent, urgent, or painful urination.

Avoiding alcohol may help you manage these side effects. For example, drinking even a tiny amount of alcohol can irritate your mouth or throat and make the pain worse, which can in turn make it harder to eat normally.

If you’re dealing with these side effects, it may be best to stop drinking altogether.

Alcohol after cancer treatment

Many side effects heal once you are done with your cancer treatments. This may mean that alcohol no longer irritates your mouth, throat, or digestive system.

It’s important to stay healthy as a cancer survivor to minimize your risk of having cancer return. However, it is not yet clear whether drinking affects your chance of having your cancer relapse (come back). Because alcohol can make cancer more likely to develop, it’s possible that drinking could increase your risk of relapse, but this hasn’t yet been proven by studies.

If you decide to drink after your cancer therapies are done, it may help to know that drinking could feel different than it used to. Many people find that after chemotherapy or other treatments, they have a different taste for alcohol, or that less alcohol is needed to feel drunk.

How much alcohol is safe?

If you are currently undergoing cancer treatment, it is best to talk to your cancer care team about whether alcohol can be combined with your current treatments. The amount that is safe for you may depend on the exact therapies you are receiving and whether you have other health issues.

The National Cancer Institute recommends that men with a history of cancer drink no more than two drinks each day, and women drink no more than one drink each day.

Additionally, the type of alcohol you drink may not matter much. Many people reach for a glass of red wine because they feel that it may offer some heart benefits. However, all types of alcoholic drinks can harm your health, and the benefits of red wine may not outweigh the risk of impacting your cancer treatment.

Ultimately, your doctor can help you best understand whether drinking is likely to impact your cancer journey or your health. Be honest with your health care team about how much you drink so they can help you scale back or reduce any negative effects.

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