I use drugs pretty regularly. Does that mean I’m addicted?

People who become addicted to drugs or alcohol typically go through predictable stages of abuse. There are five stages of drug and alcohol abuse that can help determine if you are becoming addicted.


Alcohol or drug use starts with experimentation. In this stage, the use is infrequent and the drug is usually obtained from and used with friends. Some people in this stage are able to stop using on their own. Others, however, who believe their substance abuse is solving their problems or making them feel better begin drinking more alcohol or taking more drugs. Once this happens, these people have moved on to “regular use.”


Regular use

This stage is characterized by use on a regular basis. The person may continue to use with friends or acquaintances or may use the substance while alone.


Problem or risky use

During this stage, the user begins to suffer legal, emotional, physical or social problems like bad grades, behavioral problems at home or at school, car crashes or driving tickets.



Someone who is dependent on drugs and/or alcohol will continue to use these substances regularly despite the harm their use is causing.

These are characteristics of dependence:

  • Regular use of alcohol or other drugs that leads to failure to fulfill major responsibilities related to family or school
  • Repeatedly drinking or using drugs in situations that are hazardous, such as driving
  • Development of increased tolerance to use, meaning more of the drug or alcohol is needed to have the same effect
  • Withdrawal symptoms if a person cuts back on use



At this stage, the drug use is compulsive and out of control. Addiction is a medical condition involving psychological and physical changes from repeated heavy use of alcohol, other drugs or both. People who are addicted typically have little to no control over their cravings for and use of alcohol or drugs.

Whether your drug use is at the experimentation phase or the addiction phase, you can get help and you can beat your drug habit. It is very important that you speak with your doctor or nurse about your options for quitting.

I’ve experimented with drugs in the past, will that affect my treatment?

If you do not have drugs in your body, your treatment should be able to proceed smoothly.  However, it is important to tell your doctor about any past drug use—even if it was just for a short period of time. Those who have used drugs in the past may be at an increased risk to abuse drugs related to cancer treatment and your doctor will want to monitor you to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What drugs can interfere with my cancer treatment?

All drugs have the potential to interfere with your cancer treatment. This includes but is not limited to marijuana, hallucinogens, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, anabolic steroids, inhalants, methamphetamine, and tobacco. If you have taken any drugs in the past or currently take drugs—even if it’s only every now and then—it is important that you tell your doctor or nurse. Not telling them is very risky. The drugs can change the chemistry of the cancer treatment and make it less effective or too toxic.

In addition to illegal drugs, you should not take prescription drugs or over-the-counter medicines (medicines you can buy at the store) during your treatment unless your doctor has approved the medication and the dosage. Using unapproved drugs or medications can decrease the success of your treatment and make it more difficult for you to beat cancer. Plus, when you take illegal or prescription drugs purchased “off the streets” you never really know what you are putting into your body.

Why should I not use drugs while I’m undergoing cancer treatment?

Using illegal drugs, consuming alcohol or taking legal drugs not recommended by your oncologist can interfere with your cancer treatment and further damage your health.  Drug use prevents even cancer-free bodies from being healthy and once you add cancer to your life, your body is really fighting to get healthy. Using drugs makes your body’s job of getting healthy even harder. For your cancer treatment to be the most effective, your body needs to be as strong as possible.

It has been shown that misusing illegal drug and alcohol can also interfere with the actual anticancer therapy drugs. This can result in you not being able to receive your cancer treatments or cause you to become even sicker.

Cancer and Drugs

Getting the news that you have cancer can be really hard. You probably feel confused, angry, and overwhelmed with questions.  Your emotional and physical pain may cause you to want to turn to a drug you’ve never taken before, return to a drug you used to take or cause you to continue using a drug that you’ve been taking. While you may want to give in to drugs for relief or escape, it’s important that you stay as healthy as possible during this time and avoid drug use.  Below are some of the most common questions our patients ask about using drugs while undergoing cancer treatment.

How do I know if I have an alcohol problem?

If you feel like you need to drink to cope with your cancer treatment, you should speak with a member of your healthcare team or trusted adult. Your treatment team can help you with the resources necessary to help keep alcohol out of your life while undergoing treatment.

While drinking any alcohol while undergoing treatment can be dangerous, there are three drinking behaviors that can be especially problematic and dangerous:


Alcoholism is a disease often marked by these elements:

  • Craving. The person has a strong need to drink.
  • Loss of control. The person finds it difficult to stop drinking once he or she starts.
  • Physical dependence. The person has withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety, when he or she stops drinking after a period of heavy alcohol use.
  • Tolerance. The person finds he or she needs to drink more alcohol to get high.


Alcohol abuse differs from alcoholism in that it doesn’t include an extremely strong craving for alcohol, loss of control, or physical dependence. Instead, alcohol abuse is defined as a pattern of drinking that may be accompanied by one or more of the following problems:

  • Failure to follow through on major work, school, or home responsibilities.
  • Drinking in situations that are physically dangerous. A person might drink while driving a car or operating machinery.
  • Recurring alcohol-related legal problems. These include being arrested for driving under the influence or for physically hurting someone while drunk.
  • Continued drinking despite having ongoing relationship problems caused or worsened by alcohol.


Binge drinking is drinking to get drunk—the point at which the drinker is risking health or behavioral problems as a consequence of drinking. For men, that means having five or more drinks in quick succession. Women have a lower tolerance for alcohol, so their binges are defined as four or more drinks in a row. Binge drinking is common among those who suffer from alcoholism and alcohol abuse.

Besides the risk of death from overdose, bingeing involves other dangerous or negative consequences, including:

  • Accidents. Alcohol impairs sensory perceptions, judgment and reaction time.
  • Date rape. Alcohol can be a significant factor in sexual assaults on students.
  • Unprotected sex. Heavy drinkers are at greater risk for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. They also have a greater chance of pregnancy.
  • Violence. Young people who drink are more likely than others to be victims of violent crime, including rape, aggravated assault, and robbery.
  • Alcoholism. Some college students who abuse alcohol will become alcoholics. Chronic alcohol use can damage the liver and heart and increase the risk of some cancers.
  • Bad grades. Students who drink the most have the worst grades.

What happens when you drink alcohol?

Although alcohol affects different people in different ways, in general, it is quickly absorbed from your digestive system into your blood. The amount alcohol in your blood peaks within 30 to 45 minutes.

Guys generally can drink more alcohol than girls of the same size before they show its effects. This is because girls have less body water than guys of similar body weight. Because alcohol mixes with water, girls tend to have a higher concentration of alcohol than guys of the same weight after drinking the same amount of alcohol. Women also have lower levels of one of the enzymes that metabolize alcohol, so the alcohol they drink stays in their bodies for a longer time. Therefore, with the same amount of consumption, a woman’s brain and other organs are exposed to more alcohol and more of its toxic byproducts.

*It is very important to know speak with your doctor about the effects of drinking alcohol with any of the medications you may be taking for your treatment.*

Does alcohol affect my cancer?

Alcohol can have a number of negative effects on your body while undergoing cancer treatment.

  • Alcohol can influence medications and how well they work, including many cancer treatments, and antidepressant and antianxiety drugs you may take during your treatment. In fact, it can cause serious, negative reactions or reduce the effectiveness of drugs being used to fight your cancer.
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are common side effects of chemotherapy and can leave you dehydrated. If you add alcohol to the mix, the dehydration is made much worse.

While you are undergoing chemotherapy, your liver is working extra hard to process the extra toxins in your body. Alcohol can interfere with the liver’s ability to effectively break down the toxins. In many cases, your doctor may recommend that you avoid alcohol altogether, especially if you have liver damage or have a cancer affecting the liver.

Cancer and Drinking

Being diagnosed with cancer is tough. You probably feel confused, angry and overwhelmed with questions. You may turn to drinking alcohol to help relieve the physical and emotional pain that you experience or may want to continue drinking with friends as you’ve done in the past.