Can You Drink Alcohol After a Kidney Cancer Diagnosis?

by Sarah Ludwig Rausch Health Writer

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with kidney cancer, you might be wondering about alcoholic beverages. In an ideal world no one should drink alcohol at all, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), because it increases the risk of cancer in the breast, liver, mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, colon, and rectum. Still, life is rarely ideal (and neither is a kidney cancer diagnosis), so you may decide you want to grab a drink with friends or sip a glass of wine. Before you do, here’s what you need to know.

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The Science on Alcohol and Kidney Cancer

Though scientists have linked alcohol consumption to cancer, some studies suggest that moderate alcohol use (no more than two drinks per day) is associated with a LOWER risk of developing kidney cancer, says Moshe Ornstein, M.D., a Cleveland Clinic oncologist and kidney cancer specialist. The research is less clear about alcohol’s impact once you’re already diagnosed with kidney cancer. Still, there’s no conclusive evidence suggesting alcohol makes kidney cancer progress faster, adds Neerej Agarwal, M.D., professor of medicine at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

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Alcohol and Kidney Cancer Before It Has Spread

If your cancer is only in your kidney (localized, meaning it hasn’t spread) and you’re having surgery, Dr. Ornstein recommends talking to your surgeon about how drinking might affect the procedure. If you’re a heavy drinker, tell your surgeon—you may be in the hospital for a few days, so there’s a risk for alcohol withdrawal. Once you’re home from the hospital, he says it’s best to stick to the ACS general cancer prevention guidelines of not drinking at all (at least while you’re recovering). As for recurring kidney cancer risk? “Mild alcohol consumption would be OK,” he says.

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Alcohol and Kidney Cancer After It Has Spread

The waters get murkier when you have advanced (metastatic, or spreading) kidney cancer. Most of the targeted and immunotherapy treatments doctors use for advanced kidney cancer have potential side effects such as diarrhea, reflux, ulcers in the stomach and/or esophagus, oral sensitivity, and taste changes. Dr. Agarwal warns that drinking alcohol while you’re on these treatments puts you at a higher risk of having side effects—and ups the chances those effects will be even worse. Having nasty side effects may also make you less able to tolerate your treatment, which could lead to it not being as effective.

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For Those Who Decide to Drink

Enjoying a nice glass of wine or cocktail on occasion is one of life’s simple pleasures. However, because there’s the potential for alcohol to interact negatively with your kidney cancer treatment, Dr. Ornstein says you should have a chat with your doctor before you drink if you’re taking targeted therapies or doing immunotherapy. He advises limiting your intake as much as possible. It’s best to stick with the ACS recommendation to have no more than two alcoholic drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. Overdoing it has risks. We’ll explain them next.

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Risks of Drinking Too Much

The ACS says the more alcohol you consume, the higher your risk for the previously mentioned cancers (and possibly other types, as well). If your kidney cancer was removed and there’s no evidence of cancer anywhere, Dr. Ornstein says drinking more than two drinks per day for men and more than one drink per day for women puts you at the same risk for cancer everyone has. But it’s unknown what risk indulging in more than the recommended amount has on your kidney cancer recurring.

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Different People React Differently to Alcohol

It’s impossible to define a “safe” amount of alcohol when you’re being treated for advanced kidney cancer, says Dr. Agarwal. However, his experience is that patients often figure out for themselves how much they can tolerate by how intense their medication side effects are. For example, you may have a glass of wine one night with no issues, but when you have two scotches another night, you have horrific acid reflux or raging diarrhea. You may even decide drinking while on treatment is just not worth it. Ultimately, only you can know how much or little works for you.

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Resources for Decreasing or Quitting Drinking

OK, so you’ve drunk it all in. Now, you might decide you want to curb your alcohol intake, or even quit altogether. If the latter is you, and you need help doing so, most major cancer centers have supportive oncology services, including psychiatry or psychology, that can help, notes Dr. Agarwal. Your primary care physician can be a good source of advice and resources, too. Dr. Ornstein suggests looking for a program with specific steps like this one from Harvard University. Or, check out online support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), SMART Recovery, and LifeRing Secular Recovery.

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The Bottom Line

If you had localized kidney cancer and you’re cancer-free, your cancer risk from alcohol intake is the same as anyone’s. If you’re on immunotherapy or targeted therapies for advanced kidney cancer, alcohol may deliver potentially unpleasant side effects from these drugs, or even reduce your treatment’s effectiveness. Drinking too much increases everyone’s risk of cancer. If you have (or had) kidney cancer, it’s unclear what effect alcohol might have on it recurring. Ultimately, the decision to use alcohol is yours. “Everybody has to enjoy life,” says Dr. Agarwal. “Keeping everything in moderation helps.”

Sarah Ludwig Rausch
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Ludwig Rausch

Sarah Ludwig Rausch is a health writer and editor whose specialties include mental health, diseases, research, medications, and chronic conditions. She’s written for The Christian Science Monitor, American Cancer Society, Cleveland Clinic, PsychologyToday.com, MedShadow Foundation, the ACT Test, and more.