Managing Treatments

Substance Abuse Can Complicate Cancer Treatment

Drug addiction can complicate your cancer treatment. That means it's important to communicate your history with drug abuse to your doctors to ensure you get the best treatment possible.

Having a diagnosis of cancer is serious and may be full of treatment plans and procedures. A real side effect of cancer and treatment, however, is pain. Patients can struggle to manage it and often turn to prescribed medications or other coping mechanisms that may not be healthy. It’s vital that both patients and doctors understand the connection between substance abuse and cancer and how to treat both at the same time.

What Is the Connection?

There is, in fact, a connection between substance dependence and cancer. While sometimes patients come into treatment with a history of substance addiction or dependent habits, other patients can become dependent upon pain medications during or after treatment. This unique relationship between pain, medication, and prior history of addiction can make treatment tricky.

According to an article published on Cancer Network, there is an estimated 6 – 15% of the population who have a substance abuse disorder. Cancer patients, however, often exhibit a lower incidence of abuse or dependence. This could be due to the fact that doctors aren’t asking about any substance dependence issues or that patients aren’t forthcoming with their history or current struggles.

What Should You Consider and Discuss?

If you have had a substance abuse or dependence issue in the past, be sure to discuss it with your doctor. This component of your medical history, whether you needed formal treatment for your abuse or not, is an important one for your oncologist to consider and monitor. If you become concerned about your medication use, talk with your doctor or enlist the help of a friend or counselor to keep your medication use appropriate and in control.

When your oncologist doesn’t know about your current abuse, prescribed medications may adversely affect your overall health. Even if you’re living with abuse of illicit drugs, or are embarrassed about your abuse, be honest with your treatment team so you can have the best chance for recovery and survival. If you have a history of abuse, consider attending an addiction support group during your treatment. Or, if you’ve previously worked with a sponsor or drug abuse support person, reestablish that relationship for support and encouragement.

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation recommends your treatment team include mental health professions and people with experience treating drug addiction. They also emphasize continuing to treat your addiction even after a cancer diagnosis. They suggest setting realistic goals, which your treatment team can help with.

When Should You Become Concerned?

If you’ve never experienced an addiction issue, it may be difficult to determine when your use of prescribed medications during treatment is too much. Talk to your doctor, counselor, or trusted friend if you find yourself taking more medication than the prescribed or if you’re turning to medications (over-the-counter, prescribed, or illicit) that aren’t a part of your outlined treatment plan. If your doctor doesn’t seem concerned but you’re feeling out of control, continue to push the issue and ask for help.

Finally, monitor your use of legal substances that you may use to cope with your treatment or diagnosis. Substance abuse can include overuse of alcohol, sleeping pills, or other medications. These substances offer a respite from reality but have serious consequences if used too often or too much.

Listen to your body, your conscience, and your trusted loved ones to determine if you may be developing a dependence on certain medications.

Whether you're dealing with an addiction or another health concern, the professionals at UVA can help you get the treatment you need.

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Haley Burress
Haley Burress