Quitting Alcohol

Moderate to heavy alcohol consumption is a major risk factor that can lead to development of head and neck cancer, especially cancers in the mouth, throat and voice box. When tobacco usage is combined with alcohol consumption, the risk of developing head and neck cancer increases by 15-18 times more than individuals who don’t smoke. The increased risk is a result of alcohol helping the harmful chemicals in tobacco to get inside the cells of the mouth and throat, where they can cause more damage to the cells’ DNA. Alcohol also impairs how well the cells repair the DNA damage. By itself, alcohol consumption is considered a less potent carcinogen than tobacco.

Quitting drinking, or reducing your alcohol consumption, can lower the risk of cancer and other serious health problems, improve relationships, and enhance psychological well-being. Although it is possible to quit drinking cold-turkey, many individuals find that developing a quit-drinking plan is beneficial. Below are some ways to start your quit-drinking plan:

Talk to Your Doctor

  • Talk to your doctor about quitting alcohol. They can provide helpful advice and may even offer suggestions that can be tailored to your specific needs.
  • If you have alcohol addiction, you may need medical supervision by joining a treatment program. There are a variety of treatment programs, such as residential treatment, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient programs (IOP), and therapy. Talk with your doctor to see which treatment plan would work best for you.
  • Depending on the severity of your alcoholism and its associated withdrawal symptoms, you may need medically supervised detoxification as an outpatient, or in a hospital or alcohol treatment facility. They can prescribe medication that will help prevent medical complications and relieve withdrawal symptoms.

Find Support

  • You may find it easier to cope if you talk to others who are thinking of quitting, those who are actively in recovery, or those who are have successfully quit and are in maintenance. Consider finding an online support group or attend an in-person support program in your community. Your doctor can suggest different support groups that are available in your area.
  • If you need professional support or assistance, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357. The Helpline is available 24/7 in English and Spanish and offers information, support, and a list of treatment facilities in your area.
  • You can find support close to home through your friends and family. Let your loved ones know that you are quitting and ask them for their moral support and cooperation. Ask them not to drink around you and to keep alcohol out of sight; this can help prevent the urge to drink again. Ask them to check on you occasionally to make sure that you are staying on your path to quitting.
  • If your relationships with your friends and family have been impacted by your drinking, consider doing family therapy or counseling.

Avoid Temptation

  • Remove all your alcoholic and alcohol-related beverages and supplies from your home and workspace to help limit your drinking.
  • Distract yourself by finding healthy alternatives when you have urges to drink, such as exercising, meditating, cleaning, listening to music, etc.
  • If you tend to drink socially, start a hobby or activity for socialization that does not involve alcohol consumption.

Keep a Journal and Reflect

  • Quitting an old habit and developing a new one can be hard, but starting a journal will help clarify why you want to quit, and help you keep track of your progress and milestones. When things get hard, it can act as a reminder of your progress and that you’re working hard to improve your health, relationships, career and/or psychological well-being.
  • Write down the things that trigger your drinking and alcohol-related habits. Once you know them, jot down how you can avoid your triggers and make plans for alternatives.
  • If you’re planning to gradually quit drinking, jotting down when you drink and how much you’ve had will help you track how much you are reducing your intake.
  • Choose some days of the week as alcohol-free days. Keep note of which days you designate as alcohol-free during the week. Track your success, and slowly work the number of alcohol-free days into weeks and then months.
  • If you’ve tried quitting before unsuccessfully, write down the challenges that you faced, what made you start again, and what didn’t work for you previously. Reflect and see how you can improve from your last attempt, and why you want to start quitting again.

Below are some helpful resources with more information about alcohol and head and neck cancer, general facts on alcohol consumption and resources you can use to help you quit drinking:

Information on Head and Neck Cancer and Alcohol:

General Facts and Resources:


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I believe that my success as a cancer patient is first due to the process of recognition on a basic level, that something in my body was not the same as it was and I was worse off.Jessica Tar
Singer, Songwriter, squamous cell carcinoma survivor & 2016 OHANCAW® Spokesperson


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