Questions often arise about the relationship between alcohol and cancer: Does it increase cancer risk? Is it safe to drink while in treatment? What about after treatment?
Several studies have linked alcohol consumption to a higher risk of many cancers, including breast, mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, and colon and rectum. The risk rises with the amount of alcohol consumed.
Worldwide, 3.6 percent of all cancer cases and 3.5 percent of cancer deaths are caused by alcohol consumption, according to a 2006 study. The type of beverage doesn’t matter – the culprit is the alcohol itself.
Many studies have specifically linked alcohol consumption to increased breast cancer risk. An analysis of data from 53 studies concluded that as the average number of alcoholic drinks consumed each day rose, so did the breast cancer risk. Women who had two to three drinks a day had a 20 percent higher risk of breast cancer compared to women who didn’t drink at all.
The American Cancer Society recommends no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. The guideline is lower for women because of their smaller body size and because they metabolize alcohol more slowly than men.
Whether it’s safe to drink alcoholic beverages during treatment with chemotherapy depends on a number of factors, including which drugs the patient is receiving. Alcohol can interfere with the way some chemotherapy drugs work, so patients should speak with their doctors about any potential side effects of drinking during treatment.
Kimmie Ng, MD, MPH, a medical oncologist in Dana-Farber’s Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center, says she is often asked about drinking during treatment. Her recommendation is that an occasional drink is OK, but not more than one drink “on an occasional basis – not daily.” Ng says she is conservative because many of her patients have metastases in their liver and are being treated with chemotherapy agents that may affect the liver. She notes that individual physicians may differ in their guidelines.
As for drinking after treatment, there isn’t much known about whether the odds of a cancer recurrence are affected by alcohol use after treatment has ended. This is a topic best discussed between patient and physician.
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