Substance Abuse Issues in Cancer Patients

addiction among cancer patients

Chronic pain is intolerable. Whether it’s a mild backache, post-surgery pain, arthritic pain or cancer-induced pain, it is nearly impossible to cope with constant discomfort without medicinal relief. In essence, pain relief medications are actually important for your health and wellbeing. Not only do they alleviate the pain that interferes with your daily life, but they also significantly improve the quality of your day-to-day living.

However, pain relief medications tend to have strong and intense effects, which often lead to the rise of problems such as addiction, which is becoming a pressing issue among cancer patients.

Substance Abuse Issues

substance abuse

In today’s times, where accessibility to commodities has become quite convenient, reliance on substances such as alcohol, tobacco, illicit and prescription drugs has increased significantly. The health-based repercussions of such dependencies include cardiovascular diseases, strokes, respiratory disorders and cancer.

In a study conducted by the American Cancer Society, it was revealed that nicotine reliance resulted in around 30% of the cancer deaths. Out of this, 80% of the deaths were due to lung cancer. While cigarettes are commonly referred to as ‘cancer sticks,’ its addictive tendency has redirected the focus of health experts on another issue—is substance abuse linked to cancer?

Opioid-based Painkillers

Commonly, health physicians and experts prescribe opioid-based painkillers, for example, Fentanyl, to cancer patients. However, opioid-based drugs can be misused or abused. According to a study, some of the risks associated with the use of opioid-based drugs include:

  • Respiratory disorders
  • Deteriorating immunity system
  • High levels of constipation
  • High levels of depression

In other cases, illicit use of prescribed opioid-based painkillers such as Fentanyl can actually lead to fatality upon overdose. In fact, the withdrawal symptoms of Fentanyl alone can result in:

  • Drowsiness
  • Constant state of mental confusion
  • Constricted digestive system
  • Nausea
  • Clamminess

The Link to Cancer Patients

Cancer grows into constant physical chronic pain. The amount of pain experienced by patients, particularly in the later stages, is often termed ‘indescribably severe.’ The growth of cancerous cells begins as a slow process but eventually transforms into a rapid one. The tumor, which is the collection of cancerous cells, grows to the point where it overrides the important organs of your body and causes them to malfunction.

In other cases, cancerous cells grow at such a pace that they force the muscles, bone and even the skin of the patient to bend and bow in strange ways. To no surprise, this bending and twisting of the body’s structure leads to intensely painful experiences.

While opioid-based painkillers have several associated risks, they are beneficial for the cancer patients if used in moderate quantities and/or administered under supervision. These prescription drugs hinder the painful signals transmitted by your nervous system, relieving patients of chronic pain. Relief from the intense pain experienced due to treatment allows the patients to actually feel ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ enough to move about and spend time with their loved ones.

According to a study published by the Clinical Journal of Pain, cancer patients are less likely to develop a substance abuse disorder as compared to patients of other chronic illnesses. In the study, they compared the health patterns of cancer patients with patients of AIDS. After research, they concluded that individuals with AIDS receiving opioid therapy treatment were more likely to have problematic drug-related behaviors than cancer patients.  

Need for Painkillers

The need for painkillers among cancer patients is inevitable. In fact, when cancer reaches its later stages and can no longer be treated, the patients are encouraged to use prescribed painkillers. Many times, doctors even increase the dosage to alleviate the high levels of pain experienced by the patients.

While substance abuse or reliance is not a concern for practitioners dealing with cancer patients in the later stages, this is definitely an alarming concern for the patients of earlier stages.

Measuring the Risk

Most cancer patients who use opioid-based prescription painkillers tend to show signs of developing a dependency on these drugs. While this may appear as a substance addiction, it is actually part of the cancer treatment process.

Opioid-based drugs block the pain signals by inducing pain-combative receptors in the brain. Not only does this relieve the pain experienced by the user, it also generates a feeling of euphoria. Over time, as tolerance is developed, the dose will need to increase in order to combat the patient’s immunity to the drug. Although a person is likely to feel sick without a dose, it is actually deemed normal:  a ‘physical’ dependency is recognized as part of opioid-therapy.

However, people with an addiction to this prescribed drug will not only have a physical dependency but a psychological one as well. Signs of opioid addiction include:

  • Crushing the drug and snorting it to get a rush
  • Chewing and swallowing the pills to feel an intense high
  • Switching from opioid to heroin
  • Consuming opioids without the presence of pain or illness

Is Substance Abuse Issue in Cancer Patients Possible?

Having stated all of the above, it isn’t unlikely for cancer patients to develop a substance dependence. In fact, just like substance abusers without cancer, high levels of stress alone can cause cancer patients to abuse prescription drugs.

Another common reason why substance abuse in cancer patients is possible is due to the high levels of pain, depression, and hopelessness they experience. The majority of the cancer patients quit fighting against the diseases and give in by relying on substances for relief. Accessibility of opioids is another common factor that contributes to substance abuse in cancer patients.


It is important for health care professionals to monitor the doses of drugs they prescribe to the patients. But more importantly, it is imperative to cater to the psychological needs of cancer patients. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, give us a call for more on how Arizona Addiction Recovery Center can help.