Alcohol After Cancer?

Categories: Survivorship and Nutrition

October 26, 2018

As a cancer survivor, your goal is probably to resume your familiar lifestyle as quickly as possible. You may be feeling more like your old self again with a growing appetite and the ability to enjoy the flavors in food once again. If you also enjoyed an alcoholic beverage before cancer, you may be wondering if that’s acceptable after cancer treatment. You may be right to think twice about drinking alcohol after cancer.

Research: Drinking Alcohol is Risky

Some research shows that drinking even a small amount of alcohol increases the risk of developing cancer. In its Report on Carcinogens, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program lists alcoholic beverages as known human carcinogens. The more alcohol a person drinks (especially when they drink regularly over time) the higher the risk of developing cancer, especially head and neck cancers, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, and colorectal cancers.

In 2017, the American Society of Clinical Oncology released a statement identifying alcohol as a “definite risk factor for cancer” and noting that 5% to 6% of new cancers and cancer deaths globally are directly attributable to alcohol.

Research: Moderate Alcohol Consumption is Beneficial

It’s no secret that alcohol is linked to health problems. The problem is, alcohol has also been linked to health benefits. According to a report from Harvard University’s School of Public Health, alcohol can be “both a tonic and a poison” depending primarily on the dose. Possible health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, according to Harvard, include a decreased risk of:

  • Heart attack
  • Ischemic (clot-caused) stroke
  • Peripheral vascular disease
  • Sudden cardiac death
  • Death from cardiovascular causes
  • Gallstones
  • Type 2 diabetes.

Additionally, the National Cancer Institute notes that multiple studies have concluded that alcohol consumption is associated with a decreased risk of renal cell (kidney) cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

If You Choose to Drink Alcohol After Cancer Treatment, What Should You Know?

All things considered from a risk-benefit scenario, it’s better for your health to avoid alcohol than to drink alcohol. If you choose to drink, however, there is one thing most experts absolutely agree on: Drinking in moderation is the key to minimizing the negative health effects of alcohol and benefitting from the potential health benefits of alcohol – whether you’re a cancer survivor or have never been diagnosed.

How much is safe?

The National Cancer Institute recommends that women have no more than one drink per day and men have no more than two drinks per day. A “drink” is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces (a shot) of liquor. What type of alcohol you drink is as important as how much you drink. Beer, wine, and liquor contain roughly half an ounce of alcohol per serving. Alcohol content is listed as alcohol by volume (ABV) or alcohol proof. The higher the ABV of an alcoholic beverage, the less of it you can safely consume. In general,

  • Liquor is 40% - 50% ABV (80 to 100-proof)
  • Wines are 9%-15% ABV
  • Beers and hard ciders are 3%-7% ABV

What else should you do?

The report from Harvard also notes that if you choose to drink alcohol, make sure you’re getting at least 600 micrograms per day of folate, or folic acid, since alcohol blocks the absorption of this important B vitamin. Foods high in folic acid include, leafy green vegetables such as broccoli and spinach, banana, citrus, melons, eggs, asparagus, beans, poultry, pork, and fortified cereals. You can also talk to your doctor about adding a folic acid supplement to your routine.


Most importantly, if you drink alcohol, follow the guidelines outlined above for responsible drinking to protect your most important asset: your health.

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