You may choose to make certain lifestyle changes when you receive a lymphoma diagnosis to help you manage your condition and its symptoms. For example, you may wonder if you can drink alcohol while taking cancer medications. Is it safe for you to drink moderately or occasionally, or should you become a nondrinker?
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.
There is no consensus on the effects of alcohol on lymphoma risk in particular. However, researchers have found that alcohol consumption and cancer risk are connected.
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. Research suggests that the amount of alcohol a person consumes, not the type, is what raises cancer risk.
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 immune system 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 malignancies (cancerous tumors) form.
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 cancer cells 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.
One study on lifestyle factors among those with non-Hodgkin lymphoma found a connection between alcohol consumption and poorer survival rates. The same study, however, also found a connection between alcohol consumption and a lower risk of developing lymphoma.
Cancer researchers don’t yet fully understand the implications of these findings. According to the Mayo Clinic, alcohol consumption has “different impacts on developing versus surviving non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
Alcohol consumption can affect the body of a person living with lymphoma in several different ways.
Some people with lymphoma report having sensitivities to alcohol during treatment that can be hard to distinguish from lymphoma symptoms or treatment side effects. As one MyLymphomaTeam member wrote, “After two beers, I’d feel like I was hungover.”
Drinking can also make it harder to tell the difference between lymphoma symptoms, common viruses, and alcohol side effects. “I’ve had a cold for a week and a half and have been taking a lot of aspirin and ibuprofen,” wrote one member who was worried their remission might be ending. “I also had a few vodka, club sodas the night before, which I normally don’t do.”
Another member described the problems he developed with mobility after lymphoma treatment. “I thought I was losing my mind, and my wife thought I was drinking too much beer.”
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 worsen the side effects of some lymphoma treatments and increase your risk of becoming dangerously dehydrated.
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.
Make sure to discuss alcohol and drinking with your oncology team before starting treatment for lymphoma. If you aren’t certain whether 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.
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.
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 affecting 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 although 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, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 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, 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.
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, more than 12,300 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences with others who understand life with lymphoma.
Do you notice different effects after drinking since you began lymphoma treatment? Have you cut down or stopped drinking alcohol since you were diagnosed, and if so, did it help you feel better? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or start a discussion on MyLymphomaTeam.