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Alcohol and Lymphoma: What To Know

Posted on November 29, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Todd Gersten, M.D.
Article written by
J. Christy McKibben, LPN

You may choose to make certain lifestyle changes when you receive a lymphoma diagnosis to help you manage your condition and its symptoms. This may lead you to question if you can drink alcohol while taking cancer medications, for instance. Is it safe for you to drink moderately or occasionally, or should you not drink at all?

In this article, we’ll consider research on the potential effects of alcohol on lymphoma symptoms and treatment. Ultimately, the decision of whether to consume alcoholic drinks is up to you. However, knowing the effects drinking can have may help you feel prepared to make the right call for you and your lymphoma diagnosis.

Alcohol and Cancer

There is no consensus on the effects of alcohol on lymphoma risk in particular. However, alcohol consumption is known to correlate with cancer risk.

Most evidence suggests that a substance in alcohol known as ethanol is the carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) responsible. Ethanol is found in all types of alcoholic drinks, but its concentration can vary. What raises a person’s risk for cancer appears to be the amount of alcohol the person consumes over time, not any specific type of alcohol.

When a person consumes alcohol, the body breaks it down into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a chemical that damages the body’s DNA and prevents the body from making the necessary repairs after this damage occurs. Because DNA is responsible for controlling normal cell functioning and growth, damage to the DNA can cause cells to grow out of control — in some cases, to the point that a cancerous tumor forms.

Alcohol also affects the levels of hormones, such as estrogen, in the body. Hormones tell our cells to divide and grow. The more the body’s cells divide, the higher the chance of an “error” or mutation occurring — and for cancers to develop.

Alcohol can also make it more difficult for the body to break down and absorb crucial nutrients, like folate and vitamins A, C, D, and E, which help protect the body against cancer.

Alcohol and Lymphoma

One study on lifestyle factors among those with non-Hodgkin lymphoma found that the consumption of alcohol appears to correlate with poorer survival. The same study, however, found a correlation between alcohol consumption and a lower risk of developing lymphoma.

Cancer researchers don’t yet fully understand the implications of these findings, but they did conclude that alcohol consumption has “different impacts on developing versus surviving non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”

Drinking Alcohol With Lymphoma

Alcohol consumption can impact the body in people with lymphoma in several different ways.

Alcohol Intolerance

Some people with lymphoma report having sensitivities to alcohol during treatment. As one MyLymphomaTeam member wrote, “After two beers, I’d feel like I was hungover.”

Researchers have found that some people with cancer can experience increased sensitivity to alcohol, or even alcohol intolerance. One case report of a 31-year-old man with Hodgkin lymphoma described that the man experienced severe chest pain within minutes of consuming two or three sips of alcohol. He didn’t appear to feel pain when consuming other liquids or solids. This pain did not return after the man finished his first round of chemotherapy.

In a 1966 scientific review of 747 individuals with cancer who experienced alcohol-induced pain, 31 percent had Hodgkin lymphoma. A 1983 study further estimated the prevalence of alcohol intolerance among those with Hodgkin lymphoma at 1.5 percent to 5 percent.

The exact cause of alcohol-induced pain in lymphoma is unknown, but it is thought to be connected to vasodilation (the dilation of blood vessels) in the lymph nodes after exposure to ethanol.

Nutrition and Dehydration

Alcohol consumption may impair the body’s ability to process and absorb nutrients like folate, carotenoids, and vitamins A, C, D, and E. Alcohol also dehydrates the body. This effect can exacerbate side effects of some lymphoma treatments and lead to an increased risk of becoming dangerously dehydrated.

Alcohol and Lymphoma Treatments

Alcohol may worsen the side effects you may experience while undergoing chemotherapy or other cancer treatments. Mouth sores caused by chemotherapy, in particular, can be irritated by alcohol — even when consumed in very small amounts.

Many chemotherapy drugs or other medications are broken down by the liver — the organ also responsible for breaking down alcohol. The combination of these drugs with alcohol can cause the liver to become inflamed. This inflammation can prevent the organ from fully breaking down the cancer drugs, causing potential side effects to appear or worsen.

It is important that you discuss alcohol and drinking with your oncology team before starting treatment for lymphoma. If you aren’t sure if alcohol is compatible with your medication or treatment, it’s best to not drink until you have more information from your oncologist or health care provider.

Managing Alcohol Consumption and Lymphoma

Knowing what effect alcohol has on your body means you can start to make decisions about whether to drink — and, if so, how much to drink and when.

Some people living with lymphoma stop drinking alcohol entirely because they don’t want to risk possible health effects or worsened side effects from treatment. Others may choose to continue to drink because they enjoy it and feel comfortable with moderate drinking.

No matter what you decide, it is important to have open discussions about your alcohol use with your health care team. They will be able to alert you of any potential interactions between your lymphoma treatments and alcohol. They can also help you ensure that you are approaching alcohol consumption safely. Be honest with your doctors about your habits and preferences — remember, your oncology team wants to work with you to help you feel your best.

As you decide how alcohol may fit into your life with lymphoma, there are many factors to consider, such as the type of alcoholic beverages you drink, your other risk factors, and your oncologist’s recommendations. Most importantly, monitor how you feel when you drink alcohol. Be willing to have open and honest conversations about drinking with your doctor and other important people in your life.

When Could Drinking Be Problematic?

Some people may feel that they can’t control their drinking, have negative feelings when they don’t drink, or generally feel that their alcohol consumption is negatively impacting their life. These may be signs of alcohol use disorder. If you feel as though you can’t limit how much you drink or you continue drinking even though alcohol is hurting you or those around you, it’s time to talk to your doctor.

Heavy drinking and binge drinking are two kinds of excessive drinking. Heavy drinking is considered 15 or more alcoholic drinks per week for men and eight or more alcoholic drinks per week for women. The most common kind of excessive drinking is binge drinking, which is defined as men consuming five or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion and women consuming four or more drinks on one occasion.

Whether you decide to continue drinking the same amount, reduce how much you drink, or eliminate alcohol altogether, it’s important to listen to your body and have open conversations about these topics with your health care team. They are your best resources for medical advice when it comes to limiting the negative effects alcohol has on your health and well-being.

Find Support

If you have been diagnosed with lymphoma and have questions about drinking alcohol — or anything else about lymphoma — it can help to talk to others who understand. MyLymphomaTeam is the online social network for people with lymphoma and their loved ones. Here, nearly 10,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences with others who understand life with lymphoma.

How have you managed drinking alcohol with lymphoma? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or start a discussion on MyLymphomaTeam.

Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
J. Christy McKibben, LPN is a freelance writer and licensed practical nurse in North Carolina. Learn more about her here.

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