My mother had a cancer operation and she’s drinking…

Readers Question Readers Question: (Name changed for privacy)
Stanton Peele Response by: Dr. Stanton Peele
Posted on March 26th, 2010 - Last updated: October 2nd, 2023
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A couple of questions…

  1. My mother has recently started drinking again after two years in sobriety. This resulted in her going to the hospital during the Christmas Holiday where she found out she has Lung Cancer. She now blames her shakes and mood swings on medication that the doctors have prescribed. Two days ago she had surgery to remove part of her lung, but I am afraid she will drink again. I worry way to much about this–What do I do and am I just being overly codependent?
  2. I went to check on my mom’s cats and found a 16 oz. bottle of rubbing alcohol mostly used up. I have a strong suspicion that she drank this. Will it make you go blind? Isn’t it horrible for you? Should I tell the doctor or ask my mother about it?


Dear Philip:

In general, I think it is good for an “adult child” (I don’t mean only children of alcoholics) to be part of the medical consultation with a senior citizen parent with a serious illness. Often, a more alert or assertive person can elicit helpful information, while becoming informed about aftercare in way that is helpful to the older person.

How and whether to use such a consultation to discuss drinking is trickier. If you can approach it directly by asking something appropriate-sounding during the consultation such as, “Have you (meaning both your mother and her doctor) discussed drinking?” (is smoking also an issue?) perhaps try that. Discussing drinking/rubbing alcohol separately with you mother is, of course, always an important option.

Alcoholic drinking is a risk factor in cancer and certainly will impede her chances for recovery from the cancer and surgery.

Yes, drinking rubbing alcohol is a horrible and dangerous state of affairs (I say that although I am not a medical doctor). I believe this almost killed Kitty Dukakis. But as with Kitty, why does your mother feel it necessary to sneak drinks in this fashion, even though she’s living alone? This is a case where drinking alcohol openly, even if excessively, is better than drinking surreptitiously.

Another reason to consult with your mother’s physician is for you to get a sense of your mother’s overall prognosis. Your mother may recover completely and may have a long life ahead of her. But I have seen cases where an older patient is clearly dying and yet her family never deals with this.

I say this because it is an important element in your relationship with your mother overall.

It also affects how and whether to approach the drinking question. If odds are that your mother can recover from the cancer and lead a full life for 10/20/more years, then recovery from alcoholism is critical. The very chance for medical recovery and a full life can be an important motivation for overcoming alcoholism, just as the dangers of alcohol to her medical recovery can be an important motivation for quitting drinking/staying off the booze.

At the same time, the worry and justified concern over her medical condition can hamper your mother’s full recovery in every sense, including drinking. If she is frightened, in pain, doubts that she can resume her former existence, etc., these can all contribute to continued problem drinking as an escape and anaesthetic. Also, the question with older people is their engagement in life activities. What is she doing (was she doing before the operation) to connect with people, stay active, make a contribution, etc.? This is an everpresent issue for her.

Finally, an on the other hand. If your mother’s condition is very bad, then it may be worthwhile being more patient about her drinking. During a recent televised debate on Nightline that included Dr. Jerome Kassirer, the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, over the medical uses of marijuana, the doctor commented “Wouldn’t you give a dying person a cigarette?”

I wish you well and your mother a full and happy recovery.


Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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