At my very first visit with Dr. Cancer, she told me that of all the potential lifestyle factors that cause cancer (besides the big ones like smoking and maintaining a healthy weight), there is good evidence that drinking alcohol is one of them. Even the standard recommendation of one drink per day is too high. Certainly I should not be drinking at all while undergoing chemotherapy.
I have researched this a bit to understand it better. I’ve included a lot of links in this blog posting but have highlighted the ones I think folks should read.
Both the American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society have guidelines for cancer prevention, and recently a study was published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention (article itself here, good summary of the article here) that analyzed adherence to these guidelines, and found a measurable reduction in cancer incidence and mortality when the guidelines are followed. The study does not specifically look at alcohol consumption, but compliance to the guidelines in general.
Of course the next question is “why.” The AICR guideline statement on this says that they don’t know why yet, but that “one theory is that alcohol can directly damage our DNA, increasing our risk of cancer.” I dug a little more and did find articles and studies that explain the various evidence, mostly around the way our bodies metabolize it (I’m really summarizing here).
A lot of people have mentioned to me that sugar causes cancer; apparently this is a commonly held belief. I’ve looked into this a bit and as far as I can tell, studies do not support this. Good nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight is important to reducing cancer risk, and eating a diet that is less calorie dense – i.e., low in sugar – helps with this; but sugar itself does not seem to cause (or “feed”) cancer. Not everything causes cancer.
Ok, that’s enough of a science lesson for a holiday weekend – back to me. Even before my cancer diagnosis I’d been trying to drink less (just on weekends?), quite honestly only because of the calories in alcohol and its typical accompaniments like tonic water and simple syrup. But pleasant rituals are hard to break. I don’t quite buy the five love languages thing (and don’t plan to read the book), but if I have one I’d say it’s Acts of Service; and my wonderful husband coming up to me after a harried day and handing me one of his perfect gin & tonics is hard to resist.
But giving up alcohol during chemotherapy has actually not been that difficult. Drinking has been the last thing on my mind. During the week of treatment, I don’t want much other than water. Later, as the indigestion wanes, I’m still fatigued, and drinking just makes me even sleepier. On top of that, nothing tastes good, and that includes cocktails, so why drink if it tastes bad?
I found that the last several days of the cycle, within a week of my next infusion, I started to feel well enough to have a hankering for a glass of wine. Wine tastes fine by then; other cocktails, such as our house cocktail, the g&t, still taste off. (Hard alcohol also tastes fine, go figure; but I’ll take a pass on that thank you.) So at my second infusion back in September, as the oncology nurse drew the blood for my labs, I asked her, “Um, in that lab test … do you test for blood-alcohol level?”
She smiled at my slyly and said, “Nope, just your blood count.”
With that, I settled on our current ritual of having a bit of a celebration the weekend (or so) before a round of chemo. (Don’t worry, I’m talking about one or two glasses of wine – I’m not going full frat party here.) And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly when Thanksgiving has fallen. Something to be grateful for!