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An opioid epidemic is sweeping the country, with dozens of deaths occurring daily. The situation is a national tragedy, and most often, the victims are relatively young and otherwise healthy. That is not the case with a substantial subset of opioid dependent individuals – cancer patients. Many cancer patients have become addicted to opioids, and there are always those dealing with terminal illness. In many cases, the cancer treatment is curative, but the patient ends up with opioid dependence. One in ten cancer patients who never previously abused opioids prior to diagnosis are estimated to have become chronic opioid users.
A study by researchers at the University of Michigan published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology followed more than 68,000 patients undergoing “curative intent” surgery for cancer and their opioid use. The study found that one year after surgery, 10.4 percent of patients were still filling prescriptions “with daily doses similar to chronic opioid users,” at a rate of six tablets daily of 5 mg. hydrocodone.
Surgery is a primary procedure for many cancer patients. Opioids are generally prescribed to control any types of post-surgical pain, generally for a period of two to three weeks. For cancer patients, many continue to take prescription pain medication for up to six months after treatment. The numbers are higher for those who undergo chemotherapy soon after surgery, with as many as 21 percent taking opioids months after treatment is over. That is the case even though chemotherapy pain is very different from surgical pain, and opioids are not particularly effective at easing symptoms. In fact, because both opioids and many chemotherapy drugs cause severe constipation, the use of the former can make a patient more uncomfortable.
Post-surgery cancer patients obviously need pain medication. However, patients may not realize how easy it is to become addicted to prescription pain medication. That is a possibility surgeons should always discuss with patients. Taking opioids only when pain is severe needs emphasis. After the first couple of weeks post-surgery, many patients can manage their pain by taking over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as naproxen or ibuprofen. Of course, patients should consult their doctors before taking any medication after surgery, as contraindications exist for individual patients and their conditions.
As the University of Michigan study noted, there are plenty of guidelines available for the use of opioids in treating the pain of terminally ill cancer patients. The study concludes, “New persistent opioid use is a common iatrogenic complication in patients with cancer undergoing curative-intent surgery. This problem requires changes to prescribing guidelines and patient counseling during the surveillance and survivorship phases of care.”
If you or a loved one is suffering from opioid dependence due to a doctor’s negligence, contact a Cherry Hill medical malpractice lawyer at Folkman Law Offices, P.C. to discuss your legal options. With offices in Cherry Hill, King of Prussia, and Philadelphia, our experienced attorneys handle medical malpractice claims throughout South Jersey and Pennsylvania. To schedule a free case review, call 856-354-9444 or submit an online inquiry.