Opioid Addiction in Cancer Patients

Cancer can seem like a losing battle, and then even if you survive cancer, you might become addicted to the medicine used for treatment. Opioids like oxycodone and morphine can be highly effective in treating pain but are also terribly addictive. Even if a person is taking the prescribed doses of their medication, they can become addicted to it. Addiction treatments are sometimes the only answer because even though cancer can seem like a losing battle, addiction is a treatable disease.

Fighting cancer can be a pretty scary business, and the pain it causes can be unbearable; someone who is suffering a terminal illness like cancer is likely to be in unimaginable pain. Pain is actually reported to be the biggest fear of someone suffering from cancer; not death, and not the loss of their life, but pain. For a person suffering from an often incurable condition, sometimes the only thing medical professionals can do is give them painkillers and anxiety medication to help them feel comfortable.

The tragedy occurs, not only when the person has to accept mortality, but when they become dependent on their medication. The list of prescription drugs used to treat cancer patients is astounding. Opioids are the most utilized drugs in treating cancer patients, and though they are highly successful in pain management, opioids are also highly addictive.

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Why Are Opioids Used For Treating Cancer Patients?

The dilemma that has been challenging physicians, when it comes to treating cancer patients, is what kind of medication to give them? It’s not a secret to health care professionals that opioids are highly addictive, but sometimes a cancer patient just needs something stronger for pain. Opioid painkillers are “among the most effective drugs for the treatment of pain… Their use in the management of acute severe pain and chronic pain related to advanced medical illness is considered the standard of care in most of the world, (National Center for Biotechnology Information).

Cancer patients are likely to experience cancer pain, end of life pain, and severe acute pain–therefore an intervention of opioid painkillers is often necessary for them to feel comfortable. Once it becomes established, opioid addiction can be tough to kick because of the withdrawals and euphoria they create…

How Does One Become Addicted To Opioids

Opioid use over an extended period can change the way a person’s brain works–the cells become dependent on the drug, and thus, so does the person using them. Addiction is a chronic brain reward pattern, wherein the individual is unable to abstain from a drug, even once it is no longer available. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “The nerve cells grow used to having opioids around so that when they are taken away suddenly, the person can have lots of unpleasant feelings and reactions…” also known as withdrawals. A good sign that a person is becoming addicted to a substance is if they have withdrawals when they stop using the substance or drug.

Can I Become Addicted Even If I’m Taking The Correct Doses?

Yes, unfortunately, even when taken in the correct doses, prescribed medicine causes addiction. Most people don’t choose addiction–addiction chooses them. Much like the woman coping with the loss of her husband didn’t want to become an alcoholic; the person fighting for their life didn’t expect to beat cancer and then lose to addiction. Addiction occurs when a person continues craving a drug, even when they don’t want to take it… It really comes down to the obsession and compulsion of addiction.

Obsession And Compulsion Of Addiction

Obsession occurs when all a person can think about is one thing–whether it’s their new car, their boyfriend, or in this case opioids. A cancer patient might be lying in their hospital bed watching the clock because they know that once 4 hours have expired, they are due for another dose of drugs; that is an obsession. Compulsion is when a person loses control over an action, they use the drug even though they know they aren’t supposed to–or even if they don’t want to use a drug, but they do anyways.

The point here isn’t to get cancer patients to throw away their oxycodone and go on suffering from pain; it is to inform them of what can happen when they take them regularly–and if an opioid addiction has already taken over, where they can go for help.

Different Approaches For Treatment Of Opioid Addictions

The medical fraternity has come a long way in treating addiction. Sometimes cognitive behavioral therapy is performed by a psychologist to get to the root of the problem, and sometimes partial-opiates like suboxone are issued by a physician to help with withdrawals and craving. The one thing that stands true for all addiction is that a single method of treatment doesn’t work for everyone. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, successful treatment should include these steps:

  • Detoxification
  • Behavioral Counseling
  • Medication
  • Evaluation and Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders (such as Depression and Anxiety)
  • Long-Term Follow-Up to Prevent Relapse
  • Non-Opioid Options For Pain Treatment

Non-opioid (or non-narcotics) like acetaminophen are for the treatment of mild to moderate pain. They are non-habit forming and are typically available without a prescription. According to the American Cancer Society, “in many cases, non-opioids are all you’ll need to relieve your pain, especially if you “stay on top of the pain” by taking them regularly.” They go on to say that acetaminophen and other non-habit forming drugs are “stronger than most people realize.”

More On Prescription Medication Addiction

Sometimes we have losing battles in life–we might lose a job or a loved one, but we don’t have to lose to addiction. Prescription pain medication can be highly addictive, and addiction can feel like a complete loss. One thing that always stands true, even though it’s a chronic disease (which means that there isn’t necessarily a cure), addiction is treatable–and there are people who want to help you get there.

American Cancer Society - https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/pain/non-opioids-and-other-drugs-to-treat-cancer-pain.html

National Cancer Institute - https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/drugs

National Institute on Drug Abuse For Teachers - https://teens.drugabuse.gov/teachers/mind-over-matter/opioids/how-does-someone-become-addicted

National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2711509/

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