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Adjusting to the New Alcohol Research: How I Do It

By Dr. Marisa Weiss on December 1st, 2011 Categories: Uncategorized

In my column Alcohol and Cancer: You Can’t Drink to Your Health, we talked about the recent research that reaffirms the alcohol and breast cancer link — but also makes safe alcohol limits even lower than previously thought. Our column sparked a very good question from a community member:

Ktn says:

This is a hard one for me because I really enjoy a glass of wine in the evening. I have never been a heavy drinker but have enjoyed my relaxing glass after dinner. I read one of your blogs that hit home…how you worked long hours and looked forward to wine and cheese in the evening. I can so relate after working a 12-hour shift! Can I ask what you substitute for the wine now?

To answer Ktn:

I share your struggle! My days are extremely long, loaded down with hard and serious work, and each evening, I want and deserve to relax and enjoy a glass of wine. Oh, and did I mention the three kids, ages 21, 21, and 23 — and all the rock and roll that goes with them? Yup, add them to my list of reasons why I need to do something regularly to cap off the evening and decompress. A glass of wine at the end of the night used to be part of my ritual. In fact, my husband used to come upstairs while I was watching Letterman and bring me a glass of wine. Real romantic. But the wine habit came to a screeching halt when my diagnosis hit in April 2010. Even then, there was evidence connecting alcohol and breast cancer risk, but the limit was looking a little more flexible — up to 5 drinks per week. More recent studies, however, confirm the connection and push the limit to below 3 drinks per week. TOTAL BUMMER!

It’s sort of like a breakup. You have to accept the loss, distract yourself, put yourself out there to meet more people — but in this case, find other things to do. And after the mourning the loss, you have to pick yourself up and move on. Many other challenges could be much worse.

Here are my strategies for alternative ways to relax at the end of the day:

Exercise. Endorphins are real! Plus, the exercise-induced endorphins are particularly helpful at smoothing out the subtle but noticeable mood effects from being on tamoxifen. I didn’t exercise in any regular way before — I never had the time. But then a friend of mine told me that at this time of your life, exercise is mandatory; it’s no longer optional. She is absolutely right — there’s really no choice. Now I follow this advice and pass it on to others. If you’re a patient of mine, then you’ve probably heard it. I have to exercise regularly now to maintain my quality of life and to feel really good. It works! But if I don’t exercise, I don’t feel well or handle everyday challenges as well. Not good.

Cook — and eat! Most nights I do a lot of cooking, but the dishes are simple. On a regular basis I’ll enjoy eating good vegetable and fruit dishes, including some late-night fruit as a treat. I eat a mostly plant-based diet, but I also include fish and goat sometimes. One of my current favorites is roasted butternut squash with a tiny bit of olive oil, kosher salt, and a lot of fresh rosemary. I also make lasagna with yellow squash instead of noodles. Delicious fruits of different colors really look and taste like a fancy dessert. I can cook something healthy for myself and my husband (empty nesters) and really enjoy the creativity and the reward of savoring it. Cooking with this kind of mindful awareness can really help me unwind.

Drink herbal teas. Many people report that herbal tea is a good distraction from alcohol. There are so many flavors available now — fruity flavors, chai, ginger, African rooibos, relaxing chamomile — and tea houses are popping up all over these days. They’re great places to catch up on a juicy novel or share meaningful conversation with a friend.

Watch great shows on TV. There are a lot of high-quality comedies and dramas on right now. When we’re being told a story, our awareness is suspended, distracted, and engaged in a good way — just like when we were little kids. Comedies are also great for letting go of a day’s worth of intensity. For example, I want “Gie” and Frankie to get married already on Jerseylicious and I love Friday night’s Say Yes to the Dress. And sign me up for a romantic comedy any day!

Shop! eBay happens to be a favorite thing of mine. There’s nothing like a great deal on a vintage dress! To keep it under control, I make sure that the money I use to buy things comes from money I’ve made selling them. And you can do this anywhere — even window shopping can be visually stimulating and spark some creative ideas. Warning: eBay is addictive.

Hang out with family and friends; reconnect with old friends. Spend time with your kids; invite someone over for dinner; catch up by phone with someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Human connection and laughter always helps me to chill out at the end of the day. Make sure to choose your funny friends and leave doom-and-gloom types alone.

Make stuff! Knitting, drawing, pottery, scrapbooking — even songwriting and recording on your computer — these are all great tension-unraveling influences and get us into the more creative, less logical sides of our brains. I enjoy repairing clothing: sewing on buttons, ripping out seams, sewing up hems.

Hang out with your pet. This is a known stress reducer and can be therapeutic. Take the dog for a walk, play with your cat, or watch the fish in your aquarium. Both of my dogs died — so sad — and I really miss them. So I borrow my sister’s dog every once in a while and go for walks.

Listen to great music. It’s called “music therapy” for a reason. I call it heaven on earth.

Mocktails! Here are a few of my favorite non-alcoholic drinks you can try:

  • Pomegranate juice with seltzer/club soda, lime, and mint. Sometimes even a simple glass of seltzer and lime is really refreshing!
  • Margarita mix with ice or blended for a smoothie; add club soda to dilute
  • Add a small amount of naturally flavored syrup to club soda, such as vanilla, hazelnut, caramel, cherry, or raspberry. Starbucks sells bottles of this stuff.
  • Martinelli’s sparkling cider
  • You can put anything in a fancy glass and enjoy it more. For instance, I put yogurt in a special crystal bowl, which you can get from any local thrift store. This way, an everyday snack becomes a treat — dressed up to feel better.

In coming weeks, we’ll be visiting a creative bartender for more non-alcoholic drink ideas! Stay tuned.

Special tips for moms

If you’re a mom with young children, relaxing at the end of the day can feel like an impossible dream. Whether you’re a working mom who comes home to “work, part two” with the kids, or if you’re wrangling the kids all day long, there are still ways to grab a moment to decompress. Here are a few ideas:

Hire a sitter for an hour. If you’re surrounded by kid chaos all day, an hour to yourself can sometimes make a world of difference. The sitter can come to your house so you can go out for a jog, go shopping, go to a yoga class, go to a coffee shop and read trashy gossip magazines — whatever you want to do with that hour. Or, the sitter can take the kids outside to play so you can take a hot soak in the tub. “I used to have a sitter come and take my son out for a walk in his stroller for an hour so I could get a breather. It was great!” says Breastcancer.org Executive Assistant Anne Altomare. And because it’s only an hour, the babysitter fee stays at the bare minimum.

Do a swap with friends. Get a few moms together and make a deal to rotate kid duty a couple of times a month. Maybe two moms join forces and host a Saturday arts-and-crafts, games, or learning-to-cook day with the kids. The third mom gets a “play day!”

Take it outside. Grab a friend and the kids, go to a park or playground, and let the kids run around while you have a chance to hang out with your friend. It’s usually not too hard to find a public park, and there are usually parks at schools and universities.

Date night. Schedule regular time with your partner away from the kids. Don’t make it about food. Have dinner with the kids first and then have Mom or a sitter come over. Then, go out to a movie, see a play, or go to an art exhibit.

Break up the routine. Michele Zwiebel, managing editor of Breastcancer.org and mother of a toddler and infant twins, says, “On the weekends my daughter knows she can go up in our bedroom and watch TV after dinner. She knows it’s not okay to do this during the week, so it’s something she can look forward to on Friday and Saturday nights. The twins are asleep, and my husband and I can chill out in the living room for a while. And on a Saturday night we’ll hang out as a family and just really have a good time together.”

Moms work harder than anyone. And in general, people are working so much harder today than they used to — working longer hours for less pay — so the temptation to drink can be strong. So save it for the times that mean the most to you. If it’s Friday night and you experience the burden of the whole week crashing down around you, and it’s a glass of wine versus yelling at your kids, then have the glass of wine. But also be aware that if you have a glass early in the day, it’ll probably lead to more drinking at night.

Right now, a drink may be your favorite way to relax and reward yourself. But you have to be willing to try something else. A diagnosis shakes things up, and you have to question your assumptions. That’s why I call it a breakup. You were attached to it — it was a habit that was part of your daily ritual. Those are the hardest things to change. And this is a change that requires maintenance over the long term — a work in progress.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. Let me know what changes you’ve made and how you’ve replaced alcohol in your life. How do you relax without drinking?

Dr. Marisa Weiss

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president and guiding force behind Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 8 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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