5 Million U.S. Cancer Survivors Live with Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Over five million cancer survivors in the United States live with chronic pain, a fast-growing population that is expected to double by 2040 due to the aging of the population, early cancer detection and advances in treatment, according to a new study by the American Cancer Society.

Chronic pain is one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy and other forms of cancer treatment, but until now there has been little information on its prevalence among cancer survivors.

Researchers looked at data from the National Health Interview Survey from 2016-2017 and found that about a third of cancer survivors (34.6%) have chronic pain. About one in six (16.1%) have “high impact” chronic pain (HICP) – defined as pain that limits life or work activities on most days.

Based on that survey data, researchers estimate the total number of cancers survivors in the U.S. at 15.5 million. About 5.39 million of them have chronic pain and 2.51 million have high impact chronic pain.

“We found the prevalence of chronic pain and HICP among cancer survivors to be almost double that in the general U.S. population. Chronic pain and HICP were more prevalent in survivors who were unemployed and who had low socioeconomic status, inadequate insurance, and had some specific types of cancer,” researchers reported in JAMA Oncology.

“The patterns of chronic pain that we observed in cancer survivors may be explained by barriers to cancer care and pain management as well as by the type and extent of cancer treatment received.”

One barrier to pain management stems from efforts to rein in opioid prescribing to prevent abuse and addiction. While the 2016 CDC opioid guideline is intended for “noncancer” patients, it is also applies to patients “who have completed cancer treatment, are in clinical remission, and are under cancer surveillance only.”

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Two experts in oncology and palliative care at the University of Pennsylvania say the CDC’s inclusion of cancer survivors was a mistake because it is not uncommon for cancer pain to persist long after a cancer is treated.  

“Unfortunately, this arbitrary distinction is not consistent with the evidence of pain trajectory in cancer survivors,” Neha Vapiwala, MD, and Salimah Meghani, PhD, wrote in an op/ed also published in JAMA Oncology. “Similar levels of pain were reported in survivors who were still receiving cancer treatment and those who had completed active cancer treatment.”

It’s not uncommon for cancer patients undergoing active treatment to be denied pain medication. Many doctors are reluctant to prescribe opioids, regardless of the diagnosis.

“My cancer doctor will no longer prescribe pain meds for me because I now see a pain doctor. The pain doctor doesn't understand the new cancer drug I'm on and that the side effects of this drug are pain, so he is very reluctant to manage my cancer pain,” a patient with lymphoma told us. “Many days I wonder if it would just be better to let the cancer take its course than to be scrutinized and treated like a criminal.”

April Doyle is being treated for Stage 4 terminal breast cancer, but a Rite Aid pharmacist refused to fill her prescription for Norco because he was worried about being fined or even losing his job. April’s video about the experience went viral.

“I have to take 20 pills a day just to stay alive,” she explains in the video. “Every time I take my pain pill prescription there, they give me the runaround. They don’t have enough in stock or they need me to come back tomorrow because they can’t fill it today. Or something stupid. It’s always something and it’s always some stupid excuse.”

The American Cancer Society study found that chronic pain was most common among cancer survivors treated for bone, kidney, throat-pharynx and uterine cancers.  About half still had pain after their cancer treatment ended.