Is CDC Opioid Guideline Harming Cancer Patients?

By Pat Anson, Editor

It was only intended for primary care physicians who treat chronic non-cancer pain, but the CDC’s opioid prescribing guideline has had a sweeping effect on the practice and quality of pain management in the United States.

The guideline is also causing confusion among oncology specialists who treat cancer and adding to the “already appalling burden of unrelieved cancer pain,” according to an op/ed being published in JAMA Oncology.

Two experts in oncology and palliative care at the University of Pennsylvania say some of the CDC’s recommendations are based on weak evidence and conflict with national cancer pain guidelines.

"This lack of evidence, coupled with conflicting and competing contemporary guidelines from diverse authoritative agencies and organizations carry the potential to confuse, if not seriously jeopardize, pain management for patients with cancer who are living with moderate to severe pain, adding to an already appalling burden of unrelieved cancer pain," wrote Neha Vapiwala, MD, and Salimah Meghani, PhD.

Meghani is a Professor of Nursing and Chair of Palliative Care at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, while Vapiwala is a Professor of Radiation Oncology and Vice Chair for Education in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Although the CDC guideline is intended for chronic pain patients outside of active cancer treatment, it includes patients “who have completed cancer treatment, are in clinical remission, and are under cancer surveillance only.”

Meghani and Vapiwala say the CDC’s inclusion of “cancer survivors” is a mistake because it is not uncommon for cancer pain to persist long after the cancer is treated.  

“Unfortunately, this arbitrary distinction is not consistent with the evidence of pain trajectory in cancer survivors,” the wrote. “More important, similar levels of pain were reported in survivors who were still receiving cancer treatment and those who had completed active cancer treatment.”


The CDC guideline also conflicts with the guideline of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), which is widely used by oncology physicians. The NCCN recommends that doctors use both short and long-acting opioids when treating flares from cancer pain, while the CDC recommends against long-acting opioids because of the potential risk of addiction.

The CDC also recommends that non-pharmacologic therapy such as meditation and non-opioid drugs such as gabapentin (Neurontin) be used for chronic pain. But Meghani and Vapiwala say there is little evidence those therapies work in managing moderate to severe pain.  They're urging the CDC, NCCN, American Medical Association and other organizations to develop more uniform guidelines based on solid evidence.

"Many of the current recommendations around opioid prescribing practices stem from expert consensus rather than empirical research, which is urgently needed to generate and develop informed guidelines for patients with chronic cancer-related pain," they wrote. "Clinicians who care for patients with cancer are frustrated by an increasingly overwhelming set of institutional, regulatory, and policy requirements around opioid prescribing that can interfere with being good stewards and advocates for their patients with pain.”

Cancer Patients Denied Opioids

Some cancer patients say the CDC guideline has interfered with their treatment.

“I had a painful radical surgery for cancer and was only provided 3 days of low-dose opioids per CDC guidelines and suffered terribly for 2-3 months. Still have persistent pain 5 months later due to poor acute pain control,” one PNN reader told us.

“My brother in law was just diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer with metastasis to the liver and his first oncologist refused to treat his pain adequately due to the CDC guidelines, telling him I'm not risking my license for you,” another reader said.

“I have a family friend who is a cancer patient in her mid-sixties. Her doctor pulled her off of her morphine without warning, and she has been left to suffer,” wrote another.

“I'm stuck with a bad physician in order to get pain management. No other doctor in this county will do pain management,” said a patient who has to drive 45 miles to get treatment. “My doctor misdiagnosed my stomach illness and missed my cancer all together.”

Other patients say their pain is just as bad or worse than cancer pain – and don’t understand why they are treated differently under the CDC guideline.

“These are guidelines, not meant for all patients. And to exclude ONLY cancer patients is outrageous,” wrote one patient who was born with a rare and painful digestive disease. “Why should I have to be penalized because I have a rare disease and not cancer? These rules and regulations that are coming out make me wish I had a cancer diagnosis.”