Cancer. It’s the dreaded “C” word that thousands of Americans are diagnosed with every year. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 39.6 percent of American adults will receive a cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives, according to data from 2010-2012. Although there are many types of cancer, one of the most common symptoms among all of them is pain. Mental health disorders like depression and anxiety may also develop after a cancer diagnosis.

These conditions can all prompt the need for prescription medications, which can lead to abuse or addiction. Sadly, drug addiction can decrease the effectiveness of certain cancer treatments, making a person’s overall health worse. This is why medical professionals encourage patients to take medications responsibly or consider alternative therapies.

The good news is, there are many ways to take opioids and other prescription medications safely and prevent the risk of addiction. There are also rehabilitation options and support resources available for cancer patients who are already struggling with addiction or who just need support from others during treatment.

The Anguish of Cancer

Many cancers are curable and treatable, and don’t get in the way of living a long, happy life. But the mind is a powerful thing, and some people surrender to negative thoughts after receiving the diagnosis. They think being diagnosed with cancer is an automatic death sentence. Once they accept this as their fate, they open the door to other destructive thoughts. “My life is ruined. How long do I have left? Am I going to live a painful life? Will I live long enough to see my children get married? What will happen to my family when I’m gone?” The list goes on and on. Although millions of Americans have beat cancer and went on to live long, healthy lives, it can be easy for someone who was recently diagnosed to focus on the ones who didn’t.

Worry, fear, doubt, depression, panic and anxiety are just some of the many mental side effects of cancer. It’s normal to have negative reactions after a disease diagnosis. But for some people, these thoughts become unbearable and leave them seeking prescription medication to cope. Although these drugs provide some much-needed relief, many of them come with the risk of addiction. 

Pain is another common side effect of cancer, which is why opioids are also commonly prescribed to cancer patients. Dr. Erica Weinberg, who specializes in pain management, claims that “chemical coping — maladaptive use of opioids (and other substances) to self-treat emotional distress … is common in the cancer population (11 to 28 percent).” Unfortunately, though, opioids are among the most addictive drugs on the market, due to their euphoric, desirable effects.

How Drug Addiction Can Affect Cancer Treatment

Addiction takes a toll on the body and mind, which can then be an obstacle to successful cancer treatment. Addiction to opioids or any other drug (prescription or illicit) is the “ultimate distraction,” says Dr. Lynn Bornfriend, a psychiatrist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It’s important for individuals to have a sound mind when receiving information about their health and discussing treatment. But substance addiction can cloud a person’s judgement.

In addition to the mental side effects, drug addiction can create physical obstacles to cancer treatment. Any drug that’s taken in excess can reduce the body’s ability to heal from disease and regulate itself properly. It’s also important to consider the potential adverse effects of combining certain drugs with cancer treatment. For example, some drugs can interact with certain treatments or therapies, which can weaken their effectiveness. Others may worsen the side effects of cancer treatment.

Some of the common mental and physical side effects of drug addiction that can complicate cancer treatment include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Malnourishment
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased risk for other types of cancer

Despite these risks, it is possible to safely take a prescription medication and be treated for cancer at the same time.

Ways to Prevent Opioid Addiction in Cancer Patients

Prescribing opioids to a cancer patient is a controversial practice, due to the risk of addiction, but there are ways to treat pain safely that can lower or eliminate these risks:

  • Communicate With Your Doctor: Always disclose your personal and family history of addiction to your doctor. This will help them determine the best course of treatment for your pain. In an article written for the National Council on Alcoholism and Dependence (CADD), Dr. Robert Morse states, “Research has shown conclusively that family history of alcoholism or drug addiction is in part genetic and not just the result of the family environment … Plain and simple, alcoholism and drug dependence run in families.”
  • Take Medication As Prescribed: Always take your medication as directed, and be aware of possible warnings signs of addiction. Make sure you also have a thorough understanding of the medication you’re taking, including the side effects. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor.
  • Consider Alternative Pain Management Therapies: Opioids may not be the best option for every cancer patient. In some cases, alternative pain management therapies might be better. These may include nerve block therapy, massage therapy, physical therapy and chiropractic therapy.

Addiction Treatment & Support Resources for Cancer Patients

If you’re currently undergoing cancer treatment while struggling with addiction, or if you just need general support, help is available:

  • Drug Rehab: There are thousands of drug rehabilitation centers throughout the country, such as The Recovery Village, that offer various levels of care. These include inpatient (residential) and outpatient care options. A medical professional can determine what level of care you need after a thorough evaluation.
  • Drug Support Groups: If you’re in recovery from an addiction, there are many support groups like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to help you stay in recovery. These groups offer meetings at various venues throughout the country and give people a place to share their stories, receive encouragement and inspire others.
  • Cancer Support Groups: The American Cancer Society offers free or low-cost services to help people and their loved ones understand cancer, manage their lives through treatment and recovery, and find emotional support. The National Cancer Institute also provides information on cancer support groups.

Cancer doesn’t have to define you or steal your joy, and you don’t have to be a slave to addiction. If you’re seeking help for drug or alcohol addiction, or a co-occurring mental health disorder (depression, anxiety, eating disorder, etc.), you can find it at The Recovery Village. Lines are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and there’s no obligation to enroll in treatment. So whether you’re ready to receive treatment or just need a listening ear, we’re here for you.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.