From having a cocktail at a party to sipping a glass of Cabernet at the end of the week, alcohol is, for many, an important part of life. Especially during the holidays when everyone is sipping champagne, eggnog, and mulled wine, you might be wondering if you can join in and have alcohol during chemo treatment.
The short answer: no, you probably shouldn't drink alcohol during chemotherapy treatment.
Some experts say drinking alcohol during chemo treatment, even a glass of wine or two, can be problematic. Here are the reasons why drinking alcohol while undergoing chemo may be ill advised:
- Alcohol can interfere with some chemotherapy drugs, especially procarbazine and lomustine.
- Medications including painkillers, sleep aids, and anti-nausea medications can interact negatively with alcohol, causing adverse and even fatal reactions.
- Both drugs and alcohol are metabolized by the liver, which can lead to serious side effects.
- Alcohol can inflame the liver even in healthy people and must be avoided in individuals with primary or secondary liver cancer.
- Mouth sores are a common side effect of chemo, and alcohol (even in mouthwash) can make this problem worse.
- Chemo can cause vomiting, leading to dehydration. Alcohol is also dehydrating, which may compound this side effect.
- Some chemo drugs cause a change in taste, so some people find alcohol tastes metallic or unappealing.
If you’ve ever been a problem drinker or addicted to alcohol, it’s imperative to get alcohol treatment. People with cancer might increase alcohol use as an emotional crutch to deal with their disease, which can interfere with physical and emotional healing.
Is there any evidence in favor of drinking alcohol during chemo?
One study found that alcohol consumed in moderation is associated with lower reports of chemo side effects in patients with head and neck cancers. The same study found that cancer patients who drank moderately at least once a week had improved physical health with reduced fatigue, pain, dry mouth, swelling, and loss of appetite. However, it is important to note all the negative and potentially dangerous side effects of drinking alcohol during chemotherapy. In almost all cases, alcohol should be avoided during chemotherapy treatments. Always check with your doctor before consuming any alcohol.
What about after chemotherapy? Can I drink alcohol then?
It is generally safe to drink alcohol in moderation after treatments have ended. Alcohol does not appear to be linked with breast cancer recurrence, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. In moderation, alcohol also does not appear to decrease the survival rate in breast cancer patients. Extenuating circumstances may affect one’s risk of cancer recurrence — such as overall health, type of cancer, and personal risk factors. It is always a wise idea to talk to your doctor before drinking alcohol.
Be advised: Drinking alcohol at any time can lead to adverse health effects.
A strong body of evidence suggests drinking alcoholic beverages increases the risk of some cancers, including breast, colorectal, and liver. In general terms, the more alcohol you drink, the greater the risk of cancer and a host of other physical and mental health problems.
Guidelines on Alcohol Use from Cancer Organizations
In 2015, a report by the American Institute for Cancer (AICR) showed only 43% of Americans surveyed were aware of the link between alcohol and cancer. AICR researchers recommend abstaining from alcohol completely. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends people who drink alcohol limit their intake to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink a day for women. It’s important to keep in mind the ACS guideline is for prevention of cancer, and not for people undergoing chemo.
What to Drink Instead of Alcohol During Chemotherapy
If you're bummed about not being able to have a few drinks during chemotherapy, just remember that "no alcohol" doesn't mean "no fun"! There are many delicious non-alcoholic beverage options, especially during the holidays. When you want to have a little treat at parties and restaurants, try replacing alcoholic beverages with one of these options:
- Non-alcoholic eggnog (click here for a recipe!)
- Non-alcoholic mulled wine (click here for a recipe!)
- Non-alcoholic buttered rum (click here for a recipe!)
- Sparkling or flavored water
- Juice, especially cranberry and grape juice.
- Non-alcoholic punch
- Sparkling cider
- Virgin cocktails, like a virgin Pina Colada
- Coffee and hot chocolate