Treating Pain And Preventing Addiction In Cancer Patients

Pain is one of the most common symptoms in cancer patients. The pain patients experience can be caused by both the cancer itself and/or the treatments that they undergo in an effort to eradicate the cancer. The type of pain a patient undergoes depends on a number of factors, including the type of cancer, how advanced the cancer is, where the cancer is located, and personal pain tolerance. Tumors can press on nerves, bones, and organs as they grow, causing debilitating aches and pains. Additionally, methods such as surgery, radiation, diagnostic procedures, and chemotherapy treatment can also all cause hampering pain. Addiction and cancer patients, therefore, can often go hand in hand.

Younger patients are more likely to have cancer pain and pain flares than older patients, and patients with advanced cancer typically have more severe pain than others. Pain that is severe and/or continues after cancer treatment ends is called chronic pain; chronic pain is caused by nerve changes and can be present at all times. Some patients may be disabled by their pain, unable to work or do everyday things on their own such as bathing, cooking, and eating. People might feel great emotional distress and grief due to these losses, which increases the chance of developing mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Therefore, pain management is essential to improving and maintaining quality of life in patients.

Prescription pain medications are typically prescribed to help manage chronic pain in cancer patients. These are usually strong opioids, including:

Opioids are highly addictive and powerful drugs; however, the risk for addiction amongst cancer patients that take pain medications as directed is low. Nevertheless, addiction can happen.

Opioid Addiction And Cancer Patients

Prescription opioids are typically safe when used as directed, but people who do not explicitly follow their doctor’s instructions or misuse their medication can develop a physical dependence.

Over a period of time, a person routinely using an opioid prescription may start to feel as if the drug is no longer effectively managing pain as well as it once was. This feeling is caused by an increased tolerance to the painkiller, which means that the substance has built up within the body and is no longer as potent. A tolerance can then cause a person to take larger doses than their recommended amount in order to achieve the pain-relieving effects they want. Increasing the medication dosage can then lead to a physical dependence, which is characterized by tolerance and the appearance of withdrawal symptoms when use is reduced or ended.

A physical dependence can cause a patient to take more of their drugs than prescribed which can quickly turn into substance abuse. A 2018 study found that for every additional week that patients take prescription opioids, the likelihood of them abusing the drugs increases by 20%. Each time a prescription was refilled, the chance of misuse rose by 44%.

Signs Of An Opioid Addiction

Addiction is a disease and causes people to feel as if they can’t function without the drug that they are addicted to. One of the main signs of opioid addiction is craving the medication and using the drug beyond its prescription, even though the patient knows that it’s harmful. Other examples of opioid addiction include:

  • Taking the drug more frequently than prescribed
  • Taking the medication for the “high”
  • Taking larger doses than prescribed
  • Running out of a prescription early
  • Mixing the medication with recreational drugs or alcohol
  • A persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control use
  • Excessive drowsiness or sedation
  • Mood swings
  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Seeking opioids from multiple doctors
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms upon reduction or cessation of use
  • Mental confusion
  • Using the prescription with other medications without a doctor’s approval
  • Lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Tolerance

Steps To Prevent Opioid Misuse And Addiction In Cancer Patients

If you feel your prescription isn’t helping control your pain, talk with your doctor. Being able to talk with your health care provider about your fears, pain, and other issues concerning treatment is crucial to preventing opioid misuse. Other important steps and precautions that patients should take to reduce chances of addiction include:

  • Setting a goal for pain management and following the plan.
  • Monitoring the success of the treatment regimen.
  • Tracking pain on a 0 to 10 pain scale and communicating the strength and prevalence of pain to a doctor.
  • Following medication directions and only take the drug as prescribed.
  • Being aware of potential interactions medication can cause when mixed with other drugs and/or alcohol.
  • Never changing the dosage or taking a larger dose of medication without first consulting a doctor.
  • Never sharing medication or using another person’s prescription.

Additionally, there are other pain management techniques that do not include opioids that can be effective in treating pain in cancer patients. Therapeutic approaches such as acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, relaxation, meditation, and hypnosis have all proven to be useful in reducing pain and pain flares. There are also specialized treatments, such as nerve blocks and other interventions, that medical professionals can prescribe that are good pain management alternatives to opioids.

Getting Help

If you are an individual that is recovering from cancer and struggling with an opioid addiction, know that you’re not alone and that there is help available. Addressing both cancer pain and substance abuse can be challenging, but a multidisciplinary rehabilitation team can help you be successful. So don’t wait; contact a treatment provider and learn about your options today.