Undocumented alcoholism and its correlation with tobacco and illegal drug use in advanced cancer patients

Cancer. 2011 Oct 1;117(19):4551-6. doi: 10.1002/cncr.26082. Epub 2011 Mar 28.


Background: The objectives of this retrospective study were to determine the frequency of undiagnosed alcoholism among patients with advanced cancer who were referred to palliative care and to explore its correlation with alcoholism, tobacco abuse, and use of illegal drugs.

Methods: The authors reviewed 665 consecutive charts and identified 598 patients (90%) who completed a screening survey that was designed to identify alcoholism, the Cut Down, Annoyed, Guilty, Eye Opener (CAGE) questionnaire, including 100 consecutive patients who had CAGE-positive and CAGE-negative results. Data on tobacco and illegal drug use, the Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale, and the morphine equivalent daily dose were collected.

Results: The frequency of CAGE-positive results in this palliative care population was 100 of 598 patients (17%). Only 13 of 100 patients (13%) in that CAGE-positive group had been identified as alcoholics before their palliative care consultation. Compared with CAGE-negative patients, CAGE-positive patients were younger (aged 58.6 years vs 61.3 years; P = .07), predominantly men (68 of 100 patients vs 51 of 100 patients; P = .021), more likely to have a history of tobacco use (86 of 100 patients vs 48 of 100 patients; P < .001), more likely to be actively using nicotine (33 of 100 patients vs 9 of 100 patients; P = .02), and more likely to have a history of illegal recreational drug use (17 of 100 patients vs 1 of 100 patients; P < .001). Pain and dyspnea were worse in patients who had a history of nicotine use. Both CAGE-positive patients and patients who had a history of tobacco use more frequently were receiving strong opioids at the time of their palliative care consultation.

Conclusions: The current findings suggested that alcoholism is highly prevalent and frequently under diagnosed in patients with advanced cancer. CAGE-positive patients were more likely to have a history of, or to actively engage in, smoking and illegal recreational drug use, placing them at risk for inappropriate opioid escalation and abuse.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Alcoholism / diagnosis*
  • Alcoholism / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms
  • Nicotine*
  • Palliative Care
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Substance-Related Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / diagnosis*
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / psychology


  • Nicotine