By Steve Blanchard
Results from the first-ever large study on alcohol use in the oncology population surprised researchers. A higher-than-expected number of cancer survivors and patients reported drinking alcohol “in excess.”
Of the 34,080 survey participants, 56.5% were current drinkers, 34.9% exceeded moderate drinking levels, and 21% engaged in binge drinking, according to the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, or JNCCN.
“Recent evidence suggests that cancer treatment outcomes may be poorer among those who consume alcohol, particularly at excessive levels or in a binge-type pattern,” said Dr. David Drobes, Senior Member of the Tobacco Research & Intervention Program at Moffitt Cancer Center. “Although more research is needed on this topic, it appears that drinking can harm cancer recovery.”
For the purposes of the study, excessive drinking was defined as more than one drink a day for women, and more than two drinks a day for men, per guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control. Binge drinking was defined in the same guidelines as consuming enough alcohol to raise blood alcohol content to at least .08%, which generally means at least four drinks within two hours for women, and at least five for men. For this study, the researchers defined binge drinking as the consumption of at least five drinks in one day at any point over the past year.
The results show a need to better educate cancer patients about the risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption, Drobes said.
“Based on current evidence, oncology nurses should routinely assess for problematic alcohol use patterns using measures established for the general population, such as quantity-frequency indices and brief screening measures,” he said. “Basic educational materials like handouts and videos concerning the relationship between alcohol and cancer should be provided to all patients.”
And any patients considered “at risk” should be counseled to reduce or avoid alcohol use all together.
“An appropriate referral to a specialist should be made when indicated,” Drobes said.
Younger cancer survivors showed higher rates of binge drinking. Among those ages 18 to 34, more than 23% met the criteria for binge drinking. Only 2.6% of those 75-years-old and older reported the same.
Likewise, survivors of cancer types that are more associated with younger people—like cervical, testicular, head and neck cancers, and melanoma—were more likely to report drinking at all levels, while drinking was much less common for survivors of breast cancer.
“This is the largest study to date concerning alcohol use among cancer patients and survivors,” Drobes points out. “The findings indicate that alcohol consumption occurs among more than half of cancer patients and survivors, with a substantial subset engaging in excessive drinking behavior.”
Assessing alcohol consumption on a recurring basis could help survivors and patients live heathier lives, Drobes said, and is consistent with promoting healthy lifestyle factors in the oncology setting.