Alcohol Use and Mesothelioma

Millions of American adults have difficulty controlling their alcohol use at some point in their lives. Heavy alcohol use is a preventable risk factor for cancers of the head and neck, esophagus, liver, breast, colon, and rectum. For people who have already been diagnosed with cancer like mesothelioma, the effects of alcoholism can increase the risk of side effects and recovery times after treatment.

About 17 million adults over the age of 18 meet the criteria for an AUD in the U.S. Alcohol is related to 95,000 deaths each year and places third in causes of preventable deaths (behind smoking tobacco and poor diet/physical inactivity).

People who engage in heavy drinking and binge drinking typically engage in other poor health decisions (such as smoking). Combining poor health choices often leads to long-term health problems and can worsen current illnesses. For mesothelioma patients, unsafe alcohol use could affect your prognosis and the treatment options your cancer care team offers.

Alcohol’s Effect on the Body

For people diagnosed with mesothelioma, heavy or regular alcohol use can have severe effects on the body. Alcohol can change the body’s ability to absorb nutrients like folate that keep cells healthy. Binge drinking and drinking large amounts of alcohol can subsequently weaken an individual’s immune system.

Older adults are more likely to become negatively affected by over-drinking, too. Because their bodies break down alcohol more slowly, the alcohol stays in the body longer. The lingering effects of alcohol can then cause negative interactions with medications and mesothelioma treatment.

Women also have a higher risk for alcohol-related problems after drinking because they generally have less water in their bodies than men. When alcohol mixes with water in the bloodstream, the concentration of alcohol is generally higher in women. Consequently, both women and seniors have a higher risk of alcohol-related health problems like liver damage.

An impaired liver reduces the body’s ability to break down and remove waste from the bloodstream, metabolize nutrients, and store vitamins and minerals. Thus, a healthy, functioning liver is extremely important for anyone diagnosed with mesothelioma and for those about to undergo cancer therapies like chemo or radiation.

Signs of an Alcohol Use Disorder

Recognizing the signs of an alcohol use disorder can help loved ones intervene before severe physical damage is done. In many cases, an individual struggling with alcoholism will exhibit at least a few characteristics of addiction.

An individual may have a mild-to-severe AUD if, in the past year, they have:

  • Continued to drink despite health, personal, or legal problems caused by alcohol
  • Drank more than they intended to more than once
  • Engaged in risky or dangerous behaviors while or after drinking
  • Experienced a craving or urge to drink
  • Had to drink more alcohol to get the same effects as before
  • Had withdrawal symptoms when alcohol wears off (like irritability and trouble sleeping)
  • Let drinking or hangovers affect responsibilities at home or work
  • Spent a significant amount of time drinking or recovering from drinking
  • Started to abandon activities and hobbies so they can drink
  • Wanted to cut back on drinking more than once, but couldn’t

Symptoms of withdrawal after the effects of alcohol wear off are also a sign that someone may be suffering from alcoholism. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Restlessness
  • Shakiness
  • Sweating
  • Trouble sleeping

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Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

Fortunately, research shows that any type of rehab or medical treatment for alcohol addiction is beneficial. One year after treatment for an AUD, one of every three patients no longer exhibited addiction symptoms. Even higher rates of patients were able to drastically cut back on drinking, reduce alcohol-related health problems, and improve their health.

Types of Treatment for Alcoholism
Behavior management Treatment focuses on changing behaviors that lead to drinking, usually through counseling.
Medication Prescriptions that can help people reduce drinking or make it easier for them to avoid drinking at all include acamprosate, disulfiram, and naltrexone.
Support groups Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), 12-step programs, and other support groups provide additional resources for peer-to-peer, mutual support in fighting addictive urges.

How Alcoholism Affects Cancer Treatment

Only your doctor or another member of your cancer care team can tell you if it is safe to consume alcohol before or during mesothelioma treatment. Mixing your current prescriptions with alcohol may cause drowsiness, headaches, nausea and vomiting, loss of coordination, or loss of consciousness. Alcoholism can also reduce the effectiveness of certain medications (including some over-the-counter drugs) as well as turn others toxic.

Read all prescription labels for information about potential interactions with alcohol. You can also ask your pharmacist if your medication could cause unintended side effects when drinking alcohol.

During mesothelioma treatment, drinking alcohol can affect your risk of developing other types of cancer. Alcohol should likewise be avoided if cancer treatment causes mouth or throat sores because drinking can make symptoms worse. Some cancer drugs can cause harmful side effects if they interact with alcohol in the blood.

Frequently Asked Questions About Alcoholism and Mesothelioma

  • Does the type of alcohol affect cancer risk? No. Ethanol is the type of alcohol found in all alcoholic beverages (including beers, liquors, and wines). Different types of alcohol contain varying percentages of ethanol. Ultimately, the total amount of alcohol consumed over time has a greater impact on cancer risk.
  • Can drinking wine prevent cancer? While certain compounds in grapes have been researched for cancer prevention, researchers did not find a connection between drinking red wine and a reduced risk for certain cancers.
  • Is it safe to drink while getting chemo? Depending on the type of chemotherapy and where it is being administered, it may be unsafe to drink alcohol before or after treatment. Ask your doctor before engaging in behaviors that can negatively affect your health like drinking or using tobacco.
  • How does the combination of alcohol and tobacco affect cancer risk? The combined, regular use of tobacco and alcohol has been shown to increase the risk of developing cancers of the oral cavity and esophagus. Also, using these substances together can worsen symptoms of existing cancers like mesothelioma.
  • Does alcoholism affect your immune system? Yes. Heavy drinking and binge drinking can reduce the immune system’s ability to fight disease. Studies show chronic drinkers are at greater risk of pneumonia and tuberculosis. Even over-drinking in a single sitting can reduce your immune system’s ability to fight infections for up to 24 hours afterward.
  • Can drinking alcohol kill viruses or prevent viral infections (such as the coronavirus)? No. Although hand sanitizers contain ethyl alcohol capable of killing viruses on many surfaces, drinking alcohol does not offer any protection from viruses like the coronavirus. Drinking too much can actually weaken your immune system.

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