If you or a loved one is undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer, you may have wondered if it’s okay to drink alcohol. As chemotherapeutic agents vary and treatment courses frequently change, staying abreast of potentially adverse interactions is something likely to need constant re-evaluation. However, while your doctor is the best person to consult about this issue, there are a number of factors to consider before continuing alcohol use during and after cancer treatment.
Does Drinking Alcohol Raise a Person’s Cancer Risk?
Drinking is associated with an increased risk of several types of cancers. Some of these risks derive from the directly toxic influence of one of alcohol’s metabolic or break down products called acetaldehyde. In animal experiments, acetaldehyde is a mutagenic substance—meaning it can alter a person’s DNA which, over time, leads to cumulative cellular damage.1 In some instances, after this happens, cells undergo what’s known as malignant transformation—they begin growing out of control and develop into cancerous tumors.1 Drinking alcohol has been linked to an increased risk of head and neck cancers—especially of the mouth, larynx, and esophagus—as well as breast cancer and certain kinds of gastrointestinal malignancies. The less you drink, the lower these risks.2
According to the World Health Organization, around one third of cancer deaths are due to 5 leading behavioral and dietary risks, one of which is alcohol use.3 In the United States, alcohol use contributes to approximately 3.5% of all cancer deaths.4 Drinking increases the likelihood of six kinds of cancer: oropharyngeal (mouth and throat), laryngeal (voice box), esophageal, rectal/colon, and breast (in women).2 Heavy alcohol can also lead to an increased risk of liver inflammation (hepatitis) and scarring (cirrhosis); such chronic liver disease lead to the development of hepatic cancer over time.5
What Does Chemotherapy Involve?
If you are being treated for cancer, you may receive chemotherapy, often referred to as “chemo.” There are three main goals for chemotherapy: to cure, control and ease symptoms of cancer.6 While surgery and radiation treatment target cancer in a specific area of your body, chemotherapy uses drugs that can treat cancer anywhere in the body, even in areas far from the original source.6 It is often used to treat cancer that has spread or is at high risk of spreading.6
Chemotherapy might be given in hopes of eliminating your cancer, or to manage it to make your quality of life better. In addition, even when cancer is terminal, the treatment can be used to make symptoms less severe and prolong life expectancy. When you undergo chemo, your doctor will determine what combination of drugs to prescribe.6
There are typically unpleasant side effects associated with chemotherapy and they can vary from person to person.7 However, not every person will experience these side effects. Side effects may include:7
- Mood changes.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Changes in appetite.
- Weight changes.
- Hair loss.
- Dry skin.
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Chemo and Alcohol: Can You Drink?
While undergoing chemotherapy, it is best to consult with your doctor if you have questions regarding alcohol use.4 While some studies have shown positive effects when consuming a moderate amount of alcohol to counteract chemo’s side effects, most physicians are reluctant to endorse the use of alcohol while undergoing treatment.8 Given the heterogeneity of different chemotherapeutic regimens, the fact that potential interactions may not have been exhaustively researched, and apprehensions that continued drinking may increase the risk of additional cancer development, your doctor will always be the best source of when it comes to drinking while undergoing chemotherapy.
One of the biggest issues related to the use of alcohol during treatment is a potential increase in chemotherapy-associated negative side effects such as nausea, dehydration, and mouth sores.9 In addition, alcohol can interact negatively with some chemotherapy drugs, such as docetaxel, lomustine, procarbazine, and methotrexate. 10,11,12,14,15 Chemotherapy patients are often prescribed other medications to help with chemo’s side effects such as painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs, and sleep medications—many of which could have adverse, if not life-threatening drug interactions with alcohol.13
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2007). Alcohol Metabolism: An Update.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Alcohol Use and Cancer.
. World Health Organization. (2018). Cancer.
. National Cancer Institute. (2018). Alcohol and Cancer Risk.
. American Cancer Society. (2019). Alcohol Use and Cancer.
. American Cancer Society. (2019). How is Chemotherapy Used to Treat Cancer?
. American Cancer Society. (2019). Chemotherapy Side Effects.
. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2016). What You Do Not Know Could Hurt You: What Women Wish Their Doctors Had Told Them About Chemotherapy Side Effects on Memory and Response to Alcohol.
. National Cancer Institute. (2018). Eating Hints, Before, During, and After Cancer Treatment.
. London Cancer Alliance. United Health Service. (2015). Factsheet 7: Procarbazine and Food.
. University of Utah. Huntsman Cancer Institute. (2016). Lomustine.
. Cancer Research UK. (2018). Alcohol and Chemotherapy.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Mixing Alcohol With Medicines.
. Mouzon, A., Kerger, J., Dhondt, L., & Spinewine, A. (2013). Potential Interactions with Anticancer Agents: A Cross-Sectional Study. Chemotherapy, 59(2), 85-92.
. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2016). FDA Drug Safety Communication: FDA warns that cancer drug docetaxel may cause symptoms of alcohol intoxication after treatment.