Cancer and Alcohol and Chemotherapy

by Ned Wicker
(Wisconsin)

A number of years ago when I was working as chaplain in an intensive care unit at a large metropolitan hospital, I was astonished to learn that of all the cases in the unit at any given time, 75 percent of them had an alcohol component.

It’s not that 75 percent of the patients were drunk when they came in, but that alcohol played a part in their overall physical condition and impacted the way in which the medical staff implemented a treatment plan. The unit manager explained that alcohol is “dreadfully toxic” and gets into every bit of tissue, every organ. So many people drink, some to excess, so it has to impact medical care somehow. Actually, the chemotherapy drugs for the most part are not affected by alcohol, but it is always advisable to consult with your doctor if you plan to partake while undergoing a chemo program.

An example of a drug that can cause problems when mixed with alcohol is procarbazine, which is taken orally and is designed to shrink cancer cells, commonly in Hodgkin’s strains of cancer.

Alcohol Does Not Mix Well

When patients are taking chemo, other drugs are also prescribed to deal with the side effects and those drugs present a problem if the patient drinks. Alcohol does not mix well with pain medication or sleeping pills or the anti-nausea medicines that are given to ease discomfort. The nausea leads to vomiting, which leads to dehydration, a major red flag.

Liver function is another concern, as its job is to metabolize toxins can be seriously compromised when the liver also has to deal with alcohol. Doctors will likely tell their patients to avoid alcohol altogether.

There were many cases in that ICU of patients having to wait for cancer treatment because there were complications from long-term alcohol consumption. If a physician does allow a drink, it will come with a limit. A glass of wine is sometimes a good idea to promote appetite, but not a bottle of wine, not a rum and coke. Moderation, something we Americans do not really like, is the key. No alcohol at all is the recommendation. Patients who have abused alcohol, or who have developed the disease of alcoholism, may choose to hide their disease, even when faced with the diagnosis of cancer. It is important for cancer patients, who have a history with alcohol, to share that with their doctor.

Oncologists aren’t going to be shocked or dismayed to learn that a patient has an alcohol consumption disorder, but that is a piece of vital information for them to determine the best possible approach to treatment. No two individuals are alike, but in all cases, before drinking during chemotherapy patients should have that open and honest discussion with the doctor.

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