When the doctor prescribes a narcotic painkiller, don't we need to worry about addiction?

8 answers | Last updated: Dec 03, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother, who has ovarian cancer, is in extreme pain. The doctor just prescribed a new painkiller that's an opioid narcotic, but we're afraid to have her take it. Couldn't she become addicted?

Expert Answers

Phyddy Tacchi is a psychiatric advanced practice nurse at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.

No, at this point you don't need to worry about addiction. The concern about painkillers and addiction is actually one of the biggest myths about pain management when it comes to serious diseases likeĀ  cancer. When someone is in serious pain, pain medication functions differently in the body than when someone who's not in pain takes it. In fact, drug addiction is specifically defined as dependence on opioid medications to satisfy physical, emotional, or psychological needs rather than to deal with medical problems.

Studies show that addiction in cancer patients almost never happens unless someone has a prior history of drug abuse. The other fact to think about is that drug addiction is a long-term process, and it's unlikely your parent would be taking an opioid narcotic long enough for addiction to become an issue. What's the worst that could happen? Addiction is very unlikely to become an issue in your parent's life now, whereas undermedicating pain can have dire consequences. In general, the problem with cancer is undermedicating for pain rather than overmedicating. There's no reason for your parent to suffer when drugs could help alleviate the pain.

Community Answers

Lookin4whoo answered...

I am A Chronic Pain Cancer Patient, I take several opiate drugs, It is the only way for me to have any kind of quality in my life. I am only 48 yrs old and have been on these meds for over 2 years, I am addicted, without question,I know this because my body not the clock can and has told me when I forget my meds..I thank god everyday for these meds, THEY ALLOW ME A QUALITY OF LIFE I WOULD NOT OF HAD,I was very close to being bedridden, depressed, with no kind of life. As far as a ddiction goes I was scared to start them, but I can tell you I am not whacked out, I still do all the normal daily things including driving on occasion. I hope this helps you..Good Luck in your Journey..

Azucar7751 answered...

My 81 year old Mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer two years ago. She was given chemo and went on remission for six months unfortunately the cancer return with a vengeance. Towards the end my Mother had a major obstruction in her intestines the gastrologist and surgeon had to insert a tube through her stomach which her waste would automatically go to and be only on a liquid diet however this procedure alleviated her from throwing up. Unfortunately from this time on my Mom began going down hill loosing a lot of weight, she was prescribed morphine which I feared as my Mother would at times hallucinate and would not recognize us and would be sleeping but at the same time I understood that she was having a lot of pain and at this point it wasn't fair for her to suffer and needed the medicine. On August 5th at 8:39pm...my beloved Mother passed away peacefully with a sigh. I miss her terribly as I am an only child but I find comfort knowing she's no longer suffering and is at peace with God. I advise all ladies to go to their annual gynecological check ups don't put it aside like my Mom did in 2004 the gynecologist found a small malignant cyst by her cervix and she was advised to have it surgically removed she didn't tell me or take action right away. Towards the middle of 2006 Mom was having abdominal pain was given a series of test and the results were that various malignant tumors were found in her abdomen. Surgery could not be done since the tumors were scatter all over the area, there was no guarantee that all the tumors could be remove without a possibility of leaving one or two behind and thereby re multiplying again. I do feel a tremendous loss...I didn't just loose my dear Mother but my best friend. However I feel at peace that as her daughter I did everything possible to help, go with her to all her doctor appointments, spend quality time together and make her feel comfortable, My youngest son and I were fortunate to be present when my Mother passed away. Can't believe that this Saturday will be a month since Mom left us to be with God.

God Bless


Alwaysdaddy'sgirl answered...

I wouldn't worry about addiction to the pain meds. I have Chronic Pain from a neck injury and am on Fentanyl 100micg/h a pain patch often given to cancer patents for pain in order to move and it does help me sit,stand and form some other daily functions that I wouldn't be able to do without it. I started out on 25mcg/h that was 2 years ago. If used as the DR prescribes it is unlikely to become addicted. Yes they have to be weened off it but if your parent is as bad as it sounds it would help them not be in as much pain with the meds. It doesn't take away all the pain because that is your bodies way of telling you that you have over done but it will make it tollerable so they can have quality movement and move as normal as they would if they didn't have the cancer. God Bless, I hope this helped.

Amusinsusan answered...

I understand your concern about your mother's pain medication. I remember thinking about my mother "with all of her problems with bone cancer, the last thing she needs is an addiction to pain pills". So my mother and I took our concerns to her oncologist.

Her doctor told her that addiction to pain pills was the least of her problems and not to worry about it. She DID take them and I'm so grateful that she did.

Mother would wake up in the middle of the night. Her pain would be so bad that she would sit in a chair, rock back and forth with her eyes closed, and her hands would shake uncontrollably. I would put a pain pill in her mouth, and a few sips of water. Within 20 minutes she could go back to bed and sleep.

There's no doubt in my mind that if she didn't have that pain medication, the only sleep she would get would be passing out from sheer exhaustion. Eventually the pain would have been so bad that she would have screamed without medication...no doubt in my mind. No one, within hearing distance, would have had any quality of life at this point, least of all my mother.

I drove her to the emergency room once, when the medications didn't work. When we got to the hospital, the admitting staff was putting us through the procedure as though we had the luxury of time. My mother told me to tell one of the women to come to her wheelchair. I was surprised that the woman complied (they were SOOO busy!). My mother couldn't even look at her. She just said "if you don't bring me a shot for my pain immediately, I'm going to start screaming at the top of my lungs".

I told the woman who my mother's doctor was, and one of his nurses was there in 5 minutes with my mother's shot. It was a huge hospital, so I'm sure that some running was involved. A bone scan showed that three of my mother's vertebrae had collapsed.

The pain medications let her have periods of peace and some semblance of a normal life, when there was nothing peaceful or normal about it. She and I could talk about recipes and watch TV together and she could laugh with my children. I'm grateful for those memories from such a horrible, bleak time in our lives. Her doctor was right...opioid addiction WAS the least of her problems.

Mother died a few months later. This was over twenty years ago and I know cancer treatment and medication has improved a lot since then. I had to go through it again with my brother less than 5 years ago, except his was lymphoma instead of breast to bone cancer.

Cherish this time with your mother. Let her grab any comfort her doctor will prescribe for her.

Put each of your hands on your opposite shoulder, close your eyes, and feel the hug I'm giving you. Bless you dear. Please stay in touch.

Hiney answered...

Typically, when opiads or narcotics of any kind are prescribed, all other categories of medication have been exhausted, as was the case for me. I am not terminal, I am chronic so the conversation about opiates was very neccesary before I started them, knowing "there is no going back" once starting this class of pain medications for chronic pain. They really should not be prescribed for any other reason, chronic severe pain or terminal pain.

That being said, I have been using opiates for almost three years now and there are some very compelling reasons to use them and some very unpleasant side effects that present themselves which have to be managed. After taking these drugs for as long as I have, there is no question that I am dependent on them. I do not consider myself an "addict", nor do the people around me. The reason for this is that I simply can not go about almost normal routine without the medication. Taking them alows me to work and go about an almost "normal" life. Without them, getting out of bed is insurmountable on most days. My family and I, worry about the damage these medications are doing to my body organs absorbing these poisons in such large amount and on a daily basis, more than anything any addiction issues.

I thank God and science for these medications. I do acknowledge that people with "addiction" charecteristics or personalities, will probably have trouble with these medications should they ever need them. I also realize that these very persons along with main stream drug abusers, have made it difficult for people who have legitimate need for opiate therapy whether it be for chronic severe or acute terminal pain. The media and medical gonvernmental bodies are also causing problems for people who have the need due to the pressure that is being brought to bear on our physicians, to not prescribe sufficient dosages of opiates to control pain in thier patients.

So I thank those doctors who are standing up to this increasing pressure in the best interests of thier patients. Thank you to everyone who stays involved in this contentious issue and take care of patients regardless of political and media pressure!

Newby1961 answered...

To be honest with you the sort of pain your poor mom is going through addiction should be the last thing on your mind. The most important thing is that the pain medicine works and that her level of comfort is okay.

Rockfish552 answered...

I've taken narcotic pain relievers on and off for about 4 years, and have taken them almost every day for the past 2 years for severe degenerative disk disease and other orthopedic problems. I've had two spinal fusion surgeries and other surgeries, but I continue to have chronic pain. Without these medications, I can barely perform even the most routine of tasks, such as grocery shopping, cleaning the house, cooking, etc. I'm practically bedridden.

I dealt with the pain for many, many years before opting to take narcotics because I believed all the hype about addiction and other "dangers" posed by the drugs. I took thousands of NSAIDS, but they helped very little and probably damaged my internal organs. Finally, I began taking narcotic pain pills and they work much better -- not perfect, but well enough that I can function.

Now, I feel the hype about narcotic pain pill addiction is just a misleading lie that does not apply to people with chronic pain, and I've unfortunately had to test this theory.

I sometimes have trouble getting my pain pill prescriptions filled due to the stigma associated with these drugs. At these times, I've had to suddenly stop taking the drugs and do without them for many days. I expected to experience withdrawal symptoms, but nothing happened. I simply suffered intensified pain and was unable to enjoy any quality of life.

For many months, I've taken the same, relatively small dosage (compared to others with chronic pain). I find that this dosage continues to control enough of my pain that I can function almost normally. I have no side effects except a bit of constipation that's fairly easy to control. I can barely tell that I've taken narcotic drugs, other than experiencing pain control. I do, however, recognize when I need another dosage because my pain increases when the drug effects begin wearing off.

I'm angry about the stigma associated with these drugs and the difficulty in obtaining them -- the DEA and cops run a witch hunt for doctors who prescribe narcotics, especially in my part of the country. Doctors, the AMA, and law enforcement agencies need to recognize and acknowledge the need for these drugs and allow those of us who need them to readily obtain them.