Alcohol and Cancer - Do They Mix?

by Jane Ashley

Some studies show that drinking alcohol is a risk factor for developing cancer especially for oral, breast and liver cancers. Other studies show consuming small quantities of alcohol protect against heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Still, other studies show that red wine might prevent cancer.


So what, as patients and survivors, supposed we to do? First and foremost, talk to your oncologist about your alcohol consumption during treatment. The type of cancer and chemo and the extent of disease are factors in determining whether it is safe for a patient to consume alcohol. (My oncologist asked me during my consultation appointment about my alcohol consumption and said an occasional drink would be OK. Frankly, I never felt “good enough” to drink alcohol and abstained throughout my treatment.)

Consuming alcohol during treatment.

Many chemotherapy drugs have specific recommendations to not drink alcohol while taking that particular drug. provides specific information regarding the consumption of alcohol for every chemotherapy drug. Unless your oncologist has specifically advised you that it’s OK to drink alcohol, it’s best if you don’t. There are a number of reasons why.

Defintion Of One Drink

Alcohol makes mouth sores worse.
• Medications that most cancer patients take, such as anti-nausea medicine, painkillers and sleep aids, can cause serious or even fatal reactions when taken while consuming alcohol.
• Alcohol can further damage your liver if you have primary liver cancer or metastases in your liver.
• Chemo drugs and alcohol are both metabolized in the liver, which has the potential of causing serious side effects.
• Consuming alcohol can lead to dehydration – chemo can cause diarrhea and/or vomiting leading to even more dehydration.

Alcohol consumption in survivorship.

The water is a little muddy when it comes to alcohol consumption after treatment is over. Some studies are for specific types (and even sub-types) of cancer. For less common types of cancer, few studies exist, and it’s best to have an honest conversation with your oncologist as you go into surveillance after your treatment is completed. According to AICR, alcohol, when combined with smoking, is very detrimental.

Breast cancer. Breast cancer is one of those cancers linked to alcohol consumption. Yet the results are mixed for consumption afterward. Moderate drinking confers health benefits including lowering the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. Studies do suggest that postmenopausal patients who have ER+ breast cancer may be more prone to a recurrence if they consume alcohol because alcohol increases the level of estrogen in postmenopausal women. The Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center has conducted the largest study looking at alcohol consumption and mortality for breast cancer patients. Moderate alcohol consumption after treatment did not appear to increase mortality. And a final reminder – many breast cancer patients have to take either Tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitor (anastrozole or letrozole) for five years post-treatment to help prevent recurrences. These patients are advised to limit their alcohol consumption – be sure to speak to your oncologist about your specific situation.

Soking And Alcohol

Colorectal cancer. There are over 1.3 million colorectal cancer survivors in the United States. University of California San Francisco researchers wanted to know if the 2012 American Cancer Society’s “Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines for Cancer Survivors” actually improved outcomes. So they studied almost 1000 Stage III colorectal cancer patients for a median time of seven years. These guidelines include weight reduction if obese, exercise and physical activity, eating more fruits and vegetables along with reducing red meats/processed meats. The study asked participants about their alcohol consumption. The study showed that patients with limited alcohol consumption along with a healthy diet and exercise program did not suffer decreased life expectancy or an increase in cancer recurrence.

Head and neck cancers. Some estimates show that about one-quarter of all head and neck cancers are attributable to alcohol consumption. But again, the jury is still out on alcohol’s effect on whether alcohol consumption decreases life expectancy after treatment. So moderation is recommended.

The Best Advice …

Talk to your oncologist. If you enjoy an alcoholic beverage and you are out of treatment, drink in moderation. ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) offers some helpful information about alcohol and cancer. As with everything else in life, MODERATION is the key.

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