Every year, more than 1,760,000 people are diagnosed with cancer. This devastating disease comes with a host of debilitating symptoms including severe pain, which is often treated using powerfully addictive opioid painkillers. People with cancer are more vulnerable to opioid misuse than the general population, and it can quickly lead to addiction.
Prevalence of Opioid Addiction in Cancer Patients
A study from the University of Michigan shows that cancer patients are significantly more likely to take opioid pain medication longer than is clinically recommended. The study used insurance records to find nearly 40,000 cancer patients who were prescribed opioid medication for the first time after undergoing surgery.
Within this group, a full 10 percent kept filling high-dose opioid prescriptions equivalent to six 5 mg tablets of hydrocodone per day for three months after the surgery was complete. The patients were still taking the opioids daily even a year after surgery.
The lead author of the study notes that this dosage of opioids is expected and acceptable for treating acute postoperative pain, but it shouldn’t continue for months, let alone a full year.
Factors in Addiction Among Cancer Patients
What is it that makes this group of people so vulnerable to opioid abuse and addiction? These three factors play a significant role.
1. Severe Pain
There’s no getting around the fact that cancer causes extreme pain, and opioids are effective at alleviating that pain. However, as the patient begins to need a higher dosage to achieve pain relief, the risk for addiction grows.
2. Emotional Trauma
Addiction often has an emotional component, and the trauma inherent in a cancer diagnosis may exacerbate a person’s tendency to self-medicate psychological symptoms with opioids.
3. Large Care Teams
Many cancer patients are dealing with a large care team that may not be well-coordinated. When someone is seeing multiple physicians and specialists, they may end up with multiple prescriptions or poorly-adjusted dosages, opening the door to addiction.
Dependence vs. Addiction
When considering opioid use among cancer patients, it’s important to distinguish between dependence and addiction. Anyone taking a medication over time will develop a dependence on it, meaning that they will experience withdrawal symptoms if the medication is stopped. However, dependence does not engage the reward pathways that lead to the compulsive use that defines addiction. Many cancer patients don’t know the difference and can’t identify when their use crosses over into addiction.
Rehab for Cancer Patients
People with cancer and a substance use disorder need treatment that considers the unique needs of pain management for addicts that doesn’t include the use of opioids. Pain management for recovering addicts starts with a comprehensive, individualized care plan that takes conditions like cancer into account. With a dedicated care team, people with cancer can find effective alternatives to opioid painkillers and overcome their addiction.
Get Help at Gateway
If you or someone you care about need help addressing addiction, Gateway is here for you. To find out more about our programs and services, call 877.379.8031 today.