May 22, 2024
Survivorship Support

Alcohol and Survivorship

The issue

After initial treatment, many survivors are searching for strategies to reduce the chance of their cancer coming back or developing a new cancer. While we would all love a magic bullet to ensure this experience stays in the rear view mirror, the good news is we do have some control over risk through healthful lifestyle choices. As part of this, one common question we often get asked is about the safety of drinking alcohol.

At OncoveryCare, we view considering the amount of alcohol you consume as just one part of a much larger strategy for healthful living. There are so many important and unique things that contribute to our health including our diets, exercise, sleep, stress, mental health, and following screening recommendations.

So keep this in mind as you read on, your relationship to alcohol is just one of many lifestyle decisions that go together to impact your overall health. We also want to say up front: this is hard! Alcohol is part of social interactions for many people before and after a cancer diagnosis, and if your goal is to be as healthful as possible, examining the role of alcohol in your life can be one useful approach.

If you are searching for ways to minimize the risk of cancer returning or of a new cancer diagnosis, you may choose to decrease your consumption or eliminate alcohol altogether.We at OncoveryCare believe decisions about your health as a cancer survivor should always consider your quality of life and what is both realistic and sustainable for you.

What the research says

Here’s what we learned from some trusted sources in the scientific community:

In general, the National Cancer Institute and the World Health Organization acknowledge that there is a link between alcohol consumption and developing several types of cancer. For this reason, you may see alcohol listed as a “carcinogen” - which means that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of developing cancer.

1.  National Cancer Institute (NCI)

The NCI takes a strong stance on alcohol and cancer risk, noting that with higher alcohol consumption, especially with regular alcohol consumption (i.e., multiple drinks per week for a number of years), comes an increased risk for certain types of cancer, including head and neck, liver, and breast.

2.  American Cancer Society (ACS) (CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians)

The American cancer society journal is a bit more nuanced - They do support that many studies have found a link between alcohol use and the risk of developing certain cancers. However their stance is that there is inconsistent evidence linking drinking alcohol to cancer recurrence; however could increase risk of developing a new cancer as well as other possible health effects from drinking.

3.  American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF)

The AICR and WCRF provide guidelines and recommendations on various lifestyle factors, including alcohol consumption, to reduce the risk of cancer. According to the AICR/WCRF, there is no identified safe level of alcohol consumption when it comes to cancer risk, particularly for several types of cancer, including breast, colorectal, liver, mouth, throat, and esophageal cancers.

Here is what we learned from oncology dietitian, Peter Adintori, MS, RD, CSO, CDN, CNSC who shared his professional wisdom with us:

“When working with patients and survivors, I am always up front with what we know and what we don’t know about the risk of certain food, movement, and overall lifestyle choices and cancer risk. When it comes to alcohol, this is the strongest link we have of all dietary patterns and the risk for multiple types of cancer. So, what I ask my patients and survivors to reflect on is: ‘what types of alcohol would I be drinking, how much would I drink, and how often would this happen?’

The conversation that follows really helps us to better understand the risks associated with drinking alcohol. If someone tells me that they like to have a glass of wine on special occasions or want to have an alcoholic drink on the holidays, then there are no data to support any increased risk of cancer at this frequency and amount of alcohol intake.

However, if someone tells me they have at least one alcoholic drink each evening and then more on weekends, this is where I will discuss opportunities to decrease alcohol consumption.

I have found that survivors really just want the space to ask their questions and to decide for themselves how they want to handle their relationship with alcohol. My job is to hold a safe space for this reflective process and support survivors in leaving our conversation with a bit more comfort in making these decisions moving forward.”

What the community says

Here are some approaches and strategies from our community of survivors:

  • I was never a big drinker before my diagnosis, but definitely enjoyed going out for drinks with my friends or enjoying a nice bottle of wine with dinner with my family. During treatment I cut out alcohol entirely - mostly because I was tired all the time since my body was taking such a hit with chemo and radiation. After treatment ended I wondered about how much alcohol was safe. I decided that catching up with my best friend for an amazing glass of wine once or twice a month were the things that make surviving cancer so meaningful- the chance I get to enjoy my life. I am comfortable with my choice to have alcohol now and then, and I have a personal rule to limit my alcohol to 1-2 drinks per week.
  • “I’m currently navigating the psychological parts of my relationship to alcohol and survivorship. At some times, it feels like something I can do to control the outcome, but then I have to realize there are so many other factors at play with recurrence risk. I definitely do more thinking about whether or not I want to imbibe at a given time.”

Take Action!

Some other strategies from our community of survivors & clinicians to reduce alcohol intake:

  • Set weekly drink limits, for example 1-2 drinks per week or not finishing your entire drink
  • Choose lower alcohol drinks, such as beer instead of hard liquor
  • Mix your drinks with a healthful non-alcoholic beverage like sparkling water
  • Alternate drinking water with your alcoholic beverages if you’re out, and make sure to hydrate before and after drinking alcohol
  • Be mindful of any medication interactions with alcohol
  • Try to be aware of other lifestyle choices that may accompany drinking, such as choosing less healthful foods and eating a large amount of food very late in the evening

If you find that your alcohol consumption interferes with work, relationships, or that your tolerance has increased, please reach out to your doctor, nurse, or therapist.

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