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6 Things To Know About Alcohol and Leukemia

Updated on November 10, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Todd Gersten, M.D.
Article written by
Nyaka Mwanza

Throughout your leukemia journey, there may be several reasons — from stressful to 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, including potential effects on your symptoms and cancer treatment.

The following list provides information about alcohol and leukemia that can help you make an informed decision. Your leukemia treatment team is best qualified to help you determine whether drinking alcohol is safe for you and the specifics of your leukemia, however. Speak to your oncology providers about how alcohol may affect your health. Your team will be able to give you advice about the safety of consuming alcohol during and after your leukemia treatment.

1. Alcohol Affects Risk of Cancer

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 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 consuming alcohol may lower the risk of certain types of leukemia. That said, none of the purported benefits of alcohol consumption on leukemia risk outweigh the negative health effects 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 their mother consumed alcohol during pregnancy. For many reasons, experts advise total abstinence from drinking during pregnancy.

2. Alcohol Affects the Immune System

If you’ve been diagnosed with leukemia, drinking alcohol may pose several risks. 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 (especially heavy drinking) 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
  • Reduced capacity to heal the body from cancer treatments, surgery, and infection

3. Alcohol May Interact With Your Medications

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.

4. Alcohol Can Make Leukemia Symptoms Worse

Getting adequate rest and nutrition during leukemia treatment is important for feeling your best, and 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. Consistently poor sleep quality and alcohol use have been shown to exacerbate anxiety, depression, and other mental health diagnoses that may accompany leukemia.

5. Alcohol Puts You at Risk for Secondary Cancers

Some forms of leukemia come with an increased risk of developing a second type of cancer (secondary cancer). For example, people with chronic myeloid leukemia have a 30 percent higher risk of a secondary cancer diagnosis 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 cancer, such as cancer of the esophagus and mouth, liver cancer, and throat cancer. Drinking alcohol can also raise the levels of estrogen in the body, which is a key factor in breast cancer.

6. Moderate Drinking Isn’t for Everyone

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 alcohol, it is best to do so in moderation — less than one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men.

For some people, however, drinking moderately is challenging. Heavy drinking in a short period of time (binge drinking), feeling out of control of your drinking, or having negative feelings about 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 team for more information and resources.

Find Your Team

MyLeukemiaTeam is the online social network for people with leukemia and their loved ones. More than 12,000 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 — EurekAlert
  6. Childhood and Adolescent Blood Cancer Facts and Statistics — Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
  7. Understanding Leukemia — OHSU Knight Cancer Institute
  8. Substance-Induced Thrombocytopenia — Platelet Disorder Support Association
  9. Opposing Effects of Alcohol on the Immune System — Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry
  10. A Recent Perspective on Alcohol, Immunity and Host Defense — Alcoholism, Clinical Experimental Research
  11. I Have Cancer, Can I Drink Alcohol? — UNC School of Medicine
  12. 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
  13. Alcohol Use and Cancer — American Cancer Society
  14. Alcohol — Cancer.Net
  15. The Effects of Alcohol on Quality of Sleep — Korean Journal of Family Medicine
  16. Mental Health and Sleep — Sleep Foundation
  17. Why You Shouldn’t Rely on Alcohol During Times of Stress — Cleveland Clinic
  18. Patients With Chronic Myeloid Leukemia at Increased Risk of Secondary Cancers — Cancer Therapy Advisor
  19. American Cancer Society Guideline for Diet and Physical Activity — American Cancer Society
  20. Alcohol Use and Your Health — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  21. Rethinking Drinking — National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
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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