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Substance Abuse Prevention in Cancer Patients

a woman with her hands in her lap talking to her doctor about substance use prevention in cancer patients

Opioid painkillers primarily fuel our nation’s opioid epidemic. They’re also one of the most frequently used medications to manage cancer-related pain. This reality forces treatment providers, patients, and their families to be mindful of how and when these medications are used. This knowledge and communication between these parties can help to minimize the risk of drug misuse and abuse. If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction due to cancer medications, it may be time to reach out to a prescription drug addiction treatment and prevention program, such as the one at Vertava Health.

Preventing Substance Abuse in Cancer Patients

Every individual receiving opioid painkillers should be monitored regularly. However, those individuals who are active drug abusers or currently in recovery require more intensive monitoring and support services.

There is a strong link between addiction and family history or genetics. For this reason, at the onset of care, it’s essential to notify a doctor if a patient has a family history of addiction. This question should be one of several delivered in an evaluation prior to prescribing opioid pain medications.

A mental health screening is also beneficial, both before and during treatment, as untreated mental health problems frequently lead to substance abuse. Administering a routine substance use screening can also identify drug misuse and abuse before it gets out of control.

Cancer treatment and unresolved pain can cause triggers for relapse and initiation into substance-abusing behaviors for some individuals. The stress of treatment and inadequate pain management can cause sleep troubles, extreme fatigue, and feelings of loneliness and social isolation. All of these can be risk factors for substance abuse.

Proper pain management can curtail drug misuse, as individuals experiencing unresolved pain may be tempted to self-medicate on their own. Peer support groups can help individuals cope with feelings of inadequacy and isolation, which could trigger thoughts of drug abuse.

While it can be difficult to engage in life at the same level one did prior to a cancer diagnosis, it’s still important to interact with loved ones and bring meaning to a person’s life in other ways. Maintaining relationships with loved ones can boost positive thoughts, a sense of purpose and self-worth, and increase accountability, which can help reduce triggers for drug abuse.

Does Prescribed Opioid Painkiller Use Lead to Addiction?

As our nation confronts the opioid epidemic, many individuals question the potential use of opioid painkillers. These medications have a high potential for abuse and addiction. However, they also have a valuable role in the treatment of pain, especially for cancer patients.

The following opioid medications are used to treat cancer-related pain, as detailed by the American Cancer Society:

  • Codeine
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Levorphanol
  • Methadone (Dolophine, Methadose)
  • Morphine (Avinza, MS-Contin)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)

With proper medical oversight and guidance, an individual using these medications faces a reduced risk of abuse compared to someone self-medicating.

Preventing Painkiller Abuse in Cancer Patients

Treatment providers must maintain an active dialogue with patients for the duration of opioid painkiller treatment to help ensure a patient uses it as prescribed. It’s also vital that close loved ones become familiar with treatments. That way, they can identify any behaviors which point to drug misuse or abuse.

Knowing the dose and frequency of medications can help loved ones spot the first signs of drug misuse. It’s important to realize that patients who are tolerant and dependent on medications aren’t necessarily abusing their drugs. Prescribed use can cause these conditions. When these states are accompanied by compulsive behaviors of drug-seeking and using, there’s cause for concern.

Loved ones should be aware of the following signs of drug misuse and abuse:

  • Taking a medication more frequently or at a higher dose than prescribed
  • Chewing the medication
  • Changing the medication’s form by crushing the drug to snort, smoke, or inject it
  • Taking the medication when a person isn’t experiencing pain
  • Taking someone else’s medication
  • Purchasing pills on the street
  • Claiming a medication is lost so that more can be obtained

Loved ones should communicate suspected abuse to the prescribed doctor and the appropriate drug rehabilitation services sought.

Opioid painkillers aren’t the only way to manage pain. Employing alternative pain management methods can help reduce the potential of painkiller abuse.

Preventing Other Forms of Substance Abuse in Cancer Patients

Opioid pain relievers aren’t the only substances that cancer patients abuse. Any drug of use may be abused. However, certain substances may be more attractive to cancer patients. Some individuals may self-medicate physical symptoms with marijuana or misuse their medical marijuana. Alcohol may be tempting to those who wish to dull feelings of isolation, fear, or despondency associated with a cancer diagnosis. Individuals experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety, or depression may turn to benzodiazepine drugs like Valium or Xanax to self-treat their symptoms.

Identifying and managing mental health concerns, in addition to a substance use screening, can help to reduce this risk.

Dual Diagnosis Concerns in Cancer Patients

A cancer diagnosis affects an individual’s mental health standing too. Facing a new diagnosis, treatments, and recovery from cancer can immensely strain a person’s mental and emotional health.

Oncology patients frequently experience mental health problems, including, but not limited to, depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety are the two forms of mental illness most frequently linked to substance abuse. These disorders may tempt certain individuals to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol when they occur alongside the pain and stress of treatment.

Individuals experiencing mental or emotional issues should seek counseling or therapy to ensure that their psychological health is adequately treated as well. An untreated mental illness can trigger relapse for a patient in recovery or precipitate first-time substance abuse in individuals who have never used drugs before.

During cancer treatment, individuals who are suffering from both substance use and mental health disorder will have better outcomes with targeted, dual-diagnosis care. Treatment should address the challenges associated with all three illnesses to ensure a person has the highest opportunity to recover, body and mind.

The Dangers of Using Drugs or Alcohol as a Cancer Patient

In addition to the general risks associated with drug and alcohol abuse, cancer patients face complications that are specific to the disease and treatment. Certain drugs may reduce the efficacy of cancer treatments or therapies. Others may cause side effects similar to those caused by drug use, such as nausea and vomiting.

As a person undergoes cancer treatments, they need to keep their body and immune system as healthy as possible. This helps the patient’s body to recover more fully and quickly after treatment. Substance abuse depletes a person’s immune system, making it difficult for the body to fight infection and invading cancer cells.

Furthermore, certain forms of substance abuse are associated with an increased risk of cancer. Using marijuana is believed to increase cancer risk. Alcohol abuse is linked to various cancers, including those of the head and neck.

Getting Treatment for Substance Abuse

The level of treatment an individual with a cancer diagnosis can receive varies. Acute cases may not permit individuals to enroll in an inpatient, residential program. In these instances, the hospital will likely refer a person to an in-house treatment program. Individuals who have stabilized may be able to engage in outpatient treatment. Once a person has remained cancer-free and stable for a significant amount of time, they may be able to seek inpatient services, such as the one at Vertava Health.

Seek Support at Vertava Health

Today, there is a range of treatment programs that we can tailor to the needs of the patients. In addition, it is possible to understand the symptoms of their substance abuse with therapeutic options such as:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Dialectical behavior therapy 
  • Family therapy
  • Group therapy 
  • Animal-assisted therapy

Contact Vertava Health to learn more about how we can support you as you recover from an addiction that you may have developed during your battle with cancer. We are here to help you.