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Can I Drink Alcohol During Cancer Treatment?

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Updated March 28, 2012

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Can I Drink Alcohol During Cancer Treatment?
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Question: Can I Drink Alcohol During Cancer Treatment?
I am a newly diagnosed leukemia patient. I enjoy alcoholic beverages now and then. Can drinking alcohol affect my treatment?
Answer:

Yes, the use of alcohol can impact your treatment in a number of ways.

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.

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.

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.

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.

So do you need to avoid alcohol altogether? Your doctor or healthcare provider is the best person to advise you on this matter. 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.

In short, 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.

Source:

Speigel, D. “Lifestyle Modifications” in Stern, T., Sekeres, M. (2004) Facing Cancer. McGraw- Hill: New York. (pp. 159-169).

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