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

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 Answer

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.