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Leukemia Lifestyle: Changing Drinking and Smoking Habits

Posted on July 01, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Todd Gersten, M.D.
Article written by
Victoria Menard

Changing your drinking and smoking habits can be an important part of treating your leukemia. The stress of a leukemia diagnosis can make quitting smoking or cutting back on alcohol more difficult. But getting rid of cigarettes for good can have huge benefits to your overall health. It may even increase your ability to recover after leukemia treatments like chemotherapy. Additionally, although the relationship between alcohol use and cancer is not fully clear, there may be times during your leukemia treatment that you will need to avoid alcohol entirely. What’s more, consuming alcohol and using tobacco products together can increase a person’s risk of developing some types of cancer.

Your health care team will advise you on what lifestyle changes you should make if you’ve been diagnosed with leukemia. That said, there are ways to change your drinking and smoking habits to reduce cancer-risk factors and improve your quality of life.

Drinking Alcohol After a Leukemia Diagnosis

There are some reasons you may want to reduce your alcohol intake or abstain entirely if you are living with leukemia. Your oncology specialist or health care team are best suited to determine whether consuming alcohol is OK for your particular diagnosis. They will be able to give you personalized advice about the safety of consuming alcohol during and after your leukemia treatment.

Alcohol Consumption and Cancer Risk

Numerous studies have established a connection between alcohol consumption and cancer risk, including breast, colon, and liver cancer. The conclusion: Alcohol is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance).

Some research has found no association between heavy alcohol use and an increased risk of developing leukemia or other blood cancers. Other research indicates that light drinking — defined as one drink or fewer per day — is associated with a slight reduced incidence of leukemia.

Drinking Alcohol During Leukemia Treatment

Alcohol has been found to interfere with chemotherapy and potentially decrease its efficacy. Alcohol and certain cancer drugs are both processed in the liver. Alcohol can cause the organ to become inflamed. Inflammation of the liver can inhibit the breakdown of chemotherapy drugs and even worsen your side effects during leukemia treatment.

For instance, drinking alcohol — even in moderation — can aggravate the mouth sores that result from chemotherapy and radiation exposure. Drinking alcohol may also put you at risk of dehydration or nutrient deficiency during cancer treatment. Therefore, your health care team may recommend that you avoid alcohol at certain points during your leukemia treatment.

Alcohol and Insomnia

Drinking alcohol in excess has been found to impact sleep quality and contribute to insomnia. As one MyLeukemiaTeam member wrote, avoiding alcohol may help improve sleep difficulties: “My doctor told me that alcohol might be part of my insomnia problem. I quit drinking any alcohol a few months ago, and I have been sleeping much better.”

Limiting Alcohol Consumption With Leukemia

Research has demonstrated that the amount of alcohol you drink contributes more to cancer risks than the type you drink. Although you should ask your health care team if you can consume alcohol during and after treatment, the following may help you drink in moderation, if you choose to do so.

Limit Your Daily Drinking

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that men should consume no more than two alcoholic drinks per day and that women drink no more than one. The discrepancy relates to the fact that women’s bodies contain proportionately less water and more fat than men's bodies.

Unless you are an experienced bartender, it can be unclear what a standard serving of alcohol is. A standard drink is defined as:

  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor

Avoid Binge Drinking

Binge drinking, or periods of heavy drinking, has been found to increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Binge drinking is defined as having four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men in a short period of time.

Smoking After a Leukemia Diagnosis

The reality is that quitting smoking can be difficult. As one MyLeukemia Team member wrote to another, “Good luck getting off the smokes. Hardest habit I ever had to kick. You can do it.”

But the reasons to quit smoking are many. Smoking cigarettes harms almost every organ in the body and increases the risk of a whole host of malignancies (health issues), including heart disease. Quitting smoking can have even more positive impacts if you are living with leukemia. Following are some ways that smoking cigarettes may impact you during and after leukemia treatment.

Smoking During Leukemia Treatment

Research has shown that smoking cigarettes can worsen the side effects of leukemia treatments, such as chemotherapy. These include nausea, pain, fatigue, and hair loss. In fact, one study found that current smokers who underwent cancer treatment reported more side effects than nonsmokers — even six months after their treatments had ended.

The good news? If you stop smoking before beginning leukemia treatment, you will likely experience the same severity and type of side effects as those who did not smoke to begin with.

Smoking During Leukemia Recovery

Smoking cigarettes makes recovering from cancer treatment more difficult. It also puts you at a higher risk of developing treatment-related complications, such as needing more time for wounds to heal. As with drinking excessively, smoking cigarettes has also been found to affect how the body breaks down chemotherapy drugs. This can decrease the efficacy of cancer treatment.

Smoking After Leukemia Treatment

Smoking raises your risk of developing other new types of cancer, like lung, throat, mouth, and kidney cancer. Quitting smoking will decrease the chances that you will develop another cancer after undergoing leukemia treatment.

Ways To Quit Smoking With Leukemia

If you have tried to quit smoking, you know that it can be a challenging task. You are not alone in this feeling. In fact, the American Lung Association reports that the average smoker tries to quit between six and 11 times before they successfully give up the habit.

It’s important to keep in mind that the right support can improve your likelihood of successfully quitting smoking for good. Just 4 percent to 7 percent of those who try to quit cold turkey succeed on their first attempt, and getting the support and assistance you need can make a world of difference.

The first step? Have an open, honest dialogue with your health care team. Their job is not to judge your habit — it is to help you on the path to becoming tobacco smoke-free. Your health care team may recommend the following tips to help you kick smoking for good.

Create a Quit Plan

Coming up with a plan for quitting may help you stick with it. Following are some steps for building a quit plan, recommended by the National Institutes of Health.

Set the Date

Pick a day within the next two weeks when you will quit. Take care to choose a stress-free day, and let others know of the date so they can help support you.

Identify Why You’re Quitting

Aside from staying healthy, why are you choosing to quit smoking? Do you want to save money, feel more in control of your life, or keep those around you healthy? Identifying these factors can help you stay motivated through the ups and downs of quitting.

Identify Your Triggers

Take notice of the situations, emotions, or occasions that make you want to smoke. Maybe you reach for a cigarette when you are particularly stressed, or perhaps you’re used to smoking on your daily lunch break. Finding other ways to fill your time or deal with difficult emotions can help you prepare for these urges.

Fight Cravings

Even if you’re ready to quit smoking, cravings will arise. When this happens, will you do 10 push-ups? Meditate? Call a friend, family member, or caregiver for support? Having a plan of action for when these urges occur can help you stay on track.

Join a Smoking-Cessation Class or Support Group

Having a support system or program can help increase your chances of success when quitting. Hospitals, health departments, community centers, work sites, and national organizations — including The American Heart Association and American Lung Association — offer an array of resources and programs to help you stop smoking.

Options can include:

  • Telephone-based help
  • Internet-based programs
  • Support groups, such as Nicotine Anonymous
  • Smoking programs and classes

Try Nicotine Replacement Therapy

Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products like gum, lozenges, and patches can make quitting smoking easier. These products contain controlled amounts of nicotine — the active ingredient that makes cigarettes so addictive — to help curb cravings and withdrawal symptoms. As one MyLeukemiaTeam member wrote, “I’m quitting cigarettes and am fortifying myself with much positive energy. And gum.”

Some NRT products, like lozenges, chewing gum, and dermal (skin) patches, are available over the counter. Others require a prescription, like nicotine nasal sprays and inhalers. It may take some time for you to find the right NRT product. One MyLeukemiaTeam member described their ultimately successful attempt to quit smoking. “The patches did it for me. I did each patch for longer than prescribed. … I feel so free!”

Nicotine-Free Medications

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two nicotine-free medications to help with quitting smoking: Chantix (varenicline) and Zyban (bupropion). Both medications require a prescription.

Meet Your Team

MyLeukemiaTeam is the social network for people with leukemia and their loved ones. On MyLeukemiaTeam, more than 8,600 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with leukemia.

Have you changed your smoking or drinking habits? What helped you make these changes? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below or by posting on MyLeukemiaTeam.

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.
Victoria Menard is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

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