A Dose of Caution: Avoiding Opioid Addiction
Opioids have their place in treating cancer pain, but care must be taken to avoid addiction.
PUBLISHED: APRIL 18, 2017
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ALICE GOLDEN was in unbearable pain after treatment for anal cancer, but didn’t realize medication was an option until a nurse suggested that she try it. - PHOTO BY: MEAGAN BOSCHERT
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids killed more than 33,000 people in the United States in 2015 — more than any year on record. What’s more, nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths involved a prescribed medication, rather than an illegal drug such as heroin. In some of these cases, opioids may have been prescribed to one person, but used by someone else.
Used properly, prescription opioids help keep pain — including that of people with cancer and survivors of the disease — under control. The drugs mimic natural endorphins by stimulating opioid receptors in the body’s nervous systems. But because they create a sense of euphoria, they can become addictive; that’s dangerous, according to the World Health Organization, because addicts need increasingly higher doses as tolerance develops in order to achieve the same effect, and by taking too much they risk respiratory arrest.
Quitting can be difficult due to withdrawal symptoms that can include fatigue, irritability, sweats, muscle aches and vomiting.
“Opioids are our greatest tool in managing pain,” says Jeannine Brant, Ph.D., APRN-CNS, AOCN, FAAN, oncology clinical nurse specialist and nurse scientist at the Billings Clinic in Billings, Montana. “But they are accompanied by risk and must be used with respect. Used cautiously, they play a tremendous role in helping people feel better.”