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Alcohol and Leukemia: Your Guide

Posted on November 29, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Todd Gersten, M.D.
Article written by
Nyaka Mwanza

Throughout your leukemia journey, there may be several reasons — including stress-related or celebratory — that you might want to drink alcohol. But living with leukemia often comes with several reasons you may want or need to reduce your alcohol intake or abstain from drinking entirely, including potential effects on your symptoms and treatment.

This article provides information about alcohol and leukemia that can help you make an informed decision. However, your leukemia treatment team is best qualified to help you determine how alcohol may affect your health. They can advise you on the safety of consuming alcohol during and after your leukemia treatment.

Alcohol and Cancer Risk

Alcohol is the active ingredient in beer, hard cider, liquor, and wine. Alcohol, also known as ethanol or ethyl alcohol, is a chemical produced when sugars and starches are fermented in combination with yeast. Alcohol is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing agent), and alcoholic beverages may also have other carcinogenic ingredients added to them during the production process, such as asbestos, hydrocarbons, nitrosamines, and phenols.

Acetaldehyde is the chemical that results when your body breaks down alcohol. Acetaldehyde can damage your cell tissues and DNA and keeps your body from repairing that damage. Damaged DNA can lead to uncontrolled cell growth and ultimately cancer.

Alcohol and Leukemia Risk

A cancer risk factor is anything that makes it more likely that a person will get cancer. Generally speaking, drinking moderate amounts of alcohol is not a known risk factor for developing leukemia. Some studies suggest that alcohol consumption may lower the risk of certain types of leukemia. That said, none of the purported benefits of alcohol consumption on leukemia risk outweigh the other health risks of drinking.

Alcohol and Pediatric Leukemia

Leukemia is the most commonly diagnosed type of pediatric cancer. Some research suggests that a child may have an increased risk of developing acute myeloid leukemia if the child’s mother consumed alcohol during pregnancy. For many reasons, experts advise total abstinence from drinking during pregnancy.

Leukemia and Drinking Alcohol

If you’ve been diagnosed with leukemia, alcohol consumption may pose several risks.

Immune Function and Risk of Infection

Leukemia is a blood cancer that causes an overproduction of abnormal white blood cells in the bone marrow. These leukemia cells outnumber other blood cells and don’t properly perform the vital immune functions of normal white blood cells. Drinking alcohol may cause bone marrow suppression, decreasing healthy white blood cell counts that are already compromised by leukemia.

In this way, excessive or chronic alcohol use can further weaken the immune system, leading to:

  • Decreased ability to defend against cancer cells
  • Increased risk of lung, viral, and bacterial infections
  • Decreased capacity to heal the body from cancer treatments, surgery, and infection

Drug Interactions

Alcohol and certain cancer drugs are both processed by the liver. Drinking alcohol while taking cancer drugs may put stress on the liver, an organ that is already vulnerable to complications from some forms of leukemia and chemotherapy. Stress on the liver can hinder the way the body needs to break down chemotherapy drugs, which can decrease the drugs’ efficacy or lead to side effects.

Alcohol can also interact with other drugs you may be taking as part of your holistic leukemia treatment plan.

Worsened Side Effects

Alcohol can sometimes worsen side effects during leukemia treatment. For instance, drinking alcohol can aggravate mouth sores (ulcers) that can result from chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Dehydration, Nutrition, and Sleep Quality

Getting adequate rest and nutrition throughout leukemia treatment is important for feeling your best, but drinking alcohol can increase the risk of dehydration or nutrient deficiency during cancer treatment. Drinking alcohol makes it harder for the body to break down and absorb vital nutrients that help protect against cancer, like vitamins A, C, D, E, and folate.

Drinking alcohol in excess has also been found to affect sleep quality and contribute to insomnia. Chronically poor sleep quality and alcohol use have been shown to exacerbate anxiety, depression, and other mental health diagnoses that may accompany leukemia.

Secondary Cancers

Some forms of leukemia come with an increased risk of developing a second type of cancer, or secondary cancer. For example, people with chronic myeloid leukemia have a 30 percent higher risk of developing secondary cancer than the general population, making risk reduction important. However, drinking alcohol can increase the risk of certain cancers, such as colorectal cancer and prostate cancer. Alcohol is also known to cause several forms of cancer, such as cancer of the esophagus and mouth, liver cancer, and throat cancer. Alcohol can also raise the levels of estrogen in the body, which is a key factor in breast cancer.

When Could Drinking Be Problematic?

According to the American Cancer Society, it is best not to drink alcohol. The more you can reduce your drinking, the more you can reduce the risks to your health. If you choose to drink, it is best to do so in moderation. The Centers for Control and Disease Prevention (CDC) recommends less than one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men.

For some people, however, drinking moderately is challenging. Binge drinking, feeling out of control of your drinking, or having negative feelings around your drinking may point to alcohol misuse or alcohol use disorder. If you are concerned about your alcohol use or that of a loved one, there are many support groups, substance abuse treatment programs, and other tools to help. Speak to your health care provider for more information and resources.

Find Your Team

MyLeukemiaTeam is the social network for people with leukemia. More than 9,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences with others who understand life with leukemia.

Do you have experience with alcohol and leukemia? Share your thoughts in the comments below or by starting a discussion on MyLeukemiaTeam.

References
  1. Alcohol and Cancer Risk — National Cancer Institute
  2. Alcohol and Cancer — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  3. Understanding Cancer Risk — Cancer.Net
  4. Alcohol Drinking and Risk of Leukemia — A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Dose-Risk Relation — Cancer Epidemiology
  5. Effects of Alcohol on Lymphoma, Leukemia, and Other Types of Hematological Cancers — EurekaAlert
  6. Childhood and Adolescent Blood Cancer Facts and Statistics — Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
  7. Parental Alcohol Consumption and Risk of Leukemia in the Offspring: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis — European Journal of Cancer Prevention
  8. Understanding Leukemia — OHSU Knight Cancer Institute
  9. Substance-Induced Thrombocytopenia — Platelet Disorder Support Association
  10. Association of Alcohol Consumption With White Blood Cell Count: A Study of Japanese Male Office Workers — Journal of Internal Medicine
  11. A Recent Perspective on Alcohol, Immunity and Host Defense — Alcoholism, Clinical Experimental Research
  12. I Have Cancer, Can I Drink Alcohol? — UNC School of Medicine
  13. Acute Renal and Hepatic Failure and Abnormal Blood Cell Count in Acute Leukemia: A Report of Four Cases and Review of the Literature — Journal of Pharmaceutical Care & Health Systems
  14. Alcohol Use and Cancer — American Cancer Society
  15. Alcohol — Cancer.Net
  16. The Effects of Alcohol on Quality of Sleep — Korean Journal of Family Medicine
  17. Mental Health and Sleep — Sleep Foundation
  18. Why You Shouldn’t Rely on Alcohol During Times of Stress — Cleveland Clinic
  19. Patients With Chronic Myeloid Leukemia at Increased Risk of Secondary Cancers — Cancer Therapy Advisor
  20. American Cancer Society Guideline for Diet and Physical Activity — American Cancer Society
  21. Alcohol Use and Your Health — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  22. Thinking About a Change? — Rethinking Drinking
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.
Nyaka Mwanza has worked with large global health nonprofits focused on improving health outcomes for women and children. Learn more about her here.

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