Preventing Drug Addiction in Cancer Patients

Pain is one of the most common symptoms during and after cancer treatment. Prolonged use of certain pain medications can potentially lead to addiction. It's important for doctors and patients to maintain open and honest communication throughout the entire treatment process in order to manage pain properly and prevent addiction.
Evidence Based
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Cancer Patients and Pain

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that nearly 40 percent of American adults will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. Symptoms vary widely depending on the type, location, and progress of the cancer.

Pain is one of the most prevalent symptoms, as well as a common side effect of many cancer treatments. In addition, up to 60 percent of cancer survivors experience post-cancer pain that negatively affects their quality of life, work prospects, and mental health.

Graphic of hospital.

Cancer Pain Medication

Doctors often use medication to manage the pain that results from cancer diagnoses and treatments.

Opioids are the most commonly prescribed type of medication for pain management in cancer patients. They are effective at helping to relieve and manage chronic (severe or long-term) pain. Unfortunately, opioids are also habit-forming, meaning that prolonged use can lead patients to develop tolerance and dependency on the drug.

The most common opioids prescribed to cancer patients include:

The risk for cancer patients developing an opioid dependency is low if taken as prescribed by their doctor, however, patients can become physically dependent even if they take their medicine as prescribed. Further, any misuse or abuse of these drugs can lead to addiction.

Maintaining an open, honest relationship between the patient and doctor is the best way to prevent drug addiction in cancer patients. You should never take more than the prescribed dose without consulting your doctor first.

Graphic of head filled with pills

Signs of Addiction in Cancer Patients

In many cases of addiction, the patient will not realize that they are developing a dependency. They need to be self-aware, and for doctors, friends, and family to monitor them closely.

Signs of opioid addiction in cancer patients include:

  • Taking the drug more frequently than prescribed
  • Taking more than the prescribed dose
  • Increased tolerance
  • Running out of a prescription early
  • Purchasing drugs from the street
  • Using other drugs without their doctor’s approval
  • Extreme drowsiness or sedation
  • Isolating themselves
  • Mood swings
  • Relationship problems with friends and family
  • Mental confusion
Graphic of speakerphone showing risk factors.

Tips to Prevent Drug Addiction in Cancer Patients

While doctors should help monitor your prescription drug use, there are several ways a patient can practice self-awareness to prevent developing a dependency on their pain medication, including:

  • Keep a pain journal documenting the frequency and intensity of your pain
  • Keep all your medical appointments and communicate openly with your doctors
  • Let someone you love and trust oversee your pain medication
  • Build and maintain a reliable support system
  • Enroll in peer support groups
  • Enroll in therapy or counseling sessions
Two hands with a heart between them

Treatment for Opioid Addiction in Cancer Patients

There are many challenges when it comes to managing pain in cancer patients and people recovering from cancer. Managing pain and addiction simultaneously is even more challenging. Fortunately, doctors have experience in this field and have found that a multidisciplinary rehabilitation program can often lead to a full recovery.

If you or someone you know is suffering from pain from cancer treatment and may be at risk of developing an addiction to opioid pain medication, talk with your doctor to make sure you’re taking all the right precautions.

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“Cancer Pain (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version.” National Cancer Institute, Feb. 2020,

“CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 Aug. 2019,

Paice, Judith A., et al. “Management of Chronic Pain in Survivors of Adult Cancers: ASCO Clinical Practice Guideline Summary.” Journal of Oncology Practice, vol. 12, no. 8, 2016, doi:10.1200/jop.2016.014837.

Sutradhar, Rinku, et al. “Cancer Survivorship and Opioid Prescribing Rates: A Population‐Based Matched Cohort Study among Individuals with and without a History of Cancer.” American Cancer Society Journals, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 7 Aug. 2017,

Brown, Matthew Rd et al. “Pain in Cancer Survivors.” British Journal of Pain vol. 8,4 (2014): 139-53. doi:10.1177/2049463714542605

Passik, Steven D, and Dale E Theobald. “Managing Addiction in Advanced Cancer Patients.” Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, vol. 19, no. 3, 2000, pp. 229–234., doi:10.1016/s0885-3924(00)00109-3.

Passik, Steven D., and Russell K. Portenoy. “Prevalence of Substance Abuse Disorders in Cancer Patients.” Cancer Network, 6 Apr. 1998,

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Updated on: June 24, 2020
Michael Bayba
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
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