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.

Cancer Patient's Rite Aid Video Goes Viral   

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

April Doyle was frustrated and angry when she left a Rite Aid pharmacy Monday in her hometown of Visalia, California. A pharmacist there had once again refused to fill her prescription for opioid pain medication, so she got into her car and tearfully recorded a video that she uploaded to Twitter.

“I’m frustrated and that’s why I’m crying,” Doyle said, looking into her cell phone camera. “I’ve had a hard time getting my pain pills filled from them.”

Doyle’s story is a familiar one to millions of pain sufferers, who often have trouble getting their opioid prescriptions filled at pharmacies across the country. But her story is a bit different. The 40-year old single mom has Stage 4 terminal breast cancer that has metastasized into her lungs, spine and hip.  Doyle’s oncologist wrote a prescription for Norco — an opioid medication — to relieve some of her pain.  

“And when you have metastatic cancer in your bones, you need it.  Because sometimes the pain is so much you can’t even function. And I just want to function. I want to be able to go to work and I want to be able to sleep. And I want to be able to do things with my child.  I just want it not to hurt all the time,” Doyle said.

Within days, Doyle’s 6-minute video would go viral on Twitter and Facebook, where it’s been viewed over 200,000 times.  She’d also get apologies from a Rite Aid vice-president, the store manager and the pharmacist who refused to fill her prescription.

Doyle was no stranger at that Rite Aid store. It’s right around the corner from her house and she’s been shopping there for 20 years. It’s where she’s been getting her prescriptions filled for chemotherapy, anti-depressants and anti-nausea drugs — all written by her oncologist. But Rite Aid always seemed to have trouble filling that prescription for Norco. 

“I have to take 20 pills a day just to stay alive,” Doyle 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.”

Federal and state prescribing guidelines – and those of insurers – specifically exempt cancer pain from restrictions on opioid medication.  But some cancer patients still get turned away at pharmacies. According to Doyle, the Rite Aid pharmacist told her he was worried about being fined or even losing his job if he filled her opioid prescription.   

Some of that caution is understandable. Rite Aid and other major pharmacy chains have recently been added as defendants in opioid lawsuits across the country. In the current climate of opioid hysteria, every step of the drug supply chain, from manufacturers to wholesalers to retailers is under scrutiny. Billions of dollars are at stake. Caught in the middle are pharmacists and patients like April Doyle.

“It’s not right. I’m not a criminal. I’m not a drug addict. I don’t even take them as often as my doctor says to take them. It’s not fair,” she said.

Astonished at Reaction

Doyle has been shocked at the response her video has gotten from the pain community. And surprised at how common her story is. Hundred of people left comments on Doyle’s Facebook page after watching her video.

“Stop giving your money to Rite Aid! You deserve dignity and great customer service,” one supporter wrote. “This whole opioid epidemic is making it impossible for those who medically need the meds. We all have our own story to share. This has to stop!”

“It’s hard to be sick and have people who don’t understand what you’re going through judge you,” said another supporter. “I hope you can find a pharmacy that will treat you with dignity and the compassion you deserve.”

“I know this oh too well trying to get my mom’s scripts filled when she was battling cancer running from store to store feeling and looking like a junkie. It was the most horrible part of it all!”  said another.

 “It’s astonishing the reaction it has gotten. I had no idea this was so common. It’s actually kind of sad how common it is,” Doyle told PNN. “It really struck a nerve with what’s apparently a big problem. I’m just dumbfounded by it.”

A Rite Aid spokesman said he could not comment on Doyle’s case.

“At Rite Aid, we are committed to providing high-quality care to all of our customers and patients. Rite Aid is not able to provide additional detail due to patient privacy,” Chris Savarese, Rite Aid Director of Public Relations said in an email.

Although the company has apologized to Doyle, she does not intend to go back to her neighborhood Rite Aid.

“I have decided to find a locally owned mom and pop pharmacy that really wants the business,” she said.

One in 10 Suicides Linked to Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The nation’s suicide rate has been climbing steadily for over a decade and so have the number of suicides associated with chronic pain, according to a groundbreaking study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The researchers looked at over 123,000 suicides in 18 states from 2003 to 2014 and found that about 10 percent of those who died either had chronic pain in their medical records or mentioned it in suicide notes. The percentage of suicides linked to pain grew from 7.4% in 2003 to 10.2% in 2014 – a 27 percent increase in just over a decade.  

“Our results highlight the importance of pain in quality of life and premature death, and contribute to the growing body of evidence indicating that chronic pain might be an important risk factor for suicide,” said lead author Emiko Petrosky, MD, CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

“The results probably underrepresent the true percentage of suicide decedents who had chronic pain, given the nature of the data and how they were captured.”

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is one of the first of its kind to explore the connection between pain and suicide – which is now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

Nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives in 2016, more than the number of poisoning deaths from illicit and prescription opioids.

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Back pain was the most common condition involved in pain suicides, followed by cancer pain, arthritis, migraine and fibromyalgia. Anxiety and depression were also more likely to be diagnosed in pain suicides than in those without pain.

More than a quarter of the suicide victims with chronic pain (27.1%) had served in the military. Over half died from firearm injuries and 16.2% by opioid overdose.

“Although opioid prescribing to treat chronic pain has increased in recent years, we found that the percentage of decedents with chronic pain who died by opioid overdose did not change over time. This finding suggests that increases in opioid availability are not associated with greater suicide risk from opioid overdose among patients with chronic pain.” Petrosky said.

It’s worth noting that the 2003-2014 study period was before the CDC released its controversial guideline on opioid prescribing in 2016, a sea change event that many in the pain community blame for lack of access to opioid medication and growing number of patient suicides.

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“I know that I could not stand my pain if my morphine is taken away,” one reader told us. “I will be a suicide statistic. Make sure the CDC gets blamed for my death.”

“I can only speak for myself how the CDC guidelines and the FORCED reduction of my pain medicine has brought my life to a near standstill. I get up in the mornings now and I think 5 out of those 7 mornings I sit here and cry,” said another.

“A few years ago I would've thought that the idea of deliberately driving people to suicide was a crazy conspiracy theory. Now I have almost no problem believing it,” wrote another reader.

As PNN has reported, the CDC is making no concerted effort to evaluate or track the impact of its opioid guideline on patients or on the quality of pain care. When asked if lack of access to opioid medication may be contributing to patient suicides, CDC officials would only say they were tracking opioid prescribing rates and “working on comprehensive pain management strategies.”

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.”

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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.”

Why We Must Ditch the Term 'Chronic Pain'

By Janice Reynolds, Guest Columnist

The term “chronic pain” is being used as a weapon against people living in pain.  People who are prejudiced and biased against pain sufferers often use it in derogatory way, to imply their pain is not that bad or that they are even lying about it.

Over 15 years ago, some members of the American Society for Pain Management Nursing, including myself, recognized the negative connotation of the term and attempted to change it to “persistent pain,” obviously without much success. 

“Chronic” only means a time frame of 3 months or more. No one knows how it became a term to mean a “type” of pain. 

When I was an oncology nurse, I did some research on the biological differences between cancer pain and “non-cancer” pain, and didn’t find any. No one knew how the differentiation came to be. There was no evidence to support it.

Chronic pain does not exist as an entity; it applies to many different types of pain syndromes and diseases. So when someone says there is no evidence to support using opioids for chronic pain or that opioids make chronic pain worse, these are outright lies. Or if you want to be kinder, false assumptions based on erroneous evidence. Research based on false principles.

One of the things the so-called opioid epidemic has done is given some validity to these prejudices and biases to justify the war on people in pain. The abuse by politicians and the media is too complicated to go into here, but when you have someone like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine saying pain management is important for cancer patients or end-of-life care, but addiction is a bigger problem for chronic pain patients, then it is obvious that “chronic pain” is being used as a bludgeon.

What is one thing people in pain, advocates and providers can do?

Stop using the term “chronic pain” and start using the condition or disease that causes the pain.

I have persistent post craniotomy pain, for example. You might have pain from fibromyalgia. Or pain from arachnoiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, shingles, migraine, peripheral neuropathy, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and so on.  Be specific. There are many reasons for back pain, neuropathies and other syndromes.

When we talk or write about persistent pain, use the terms “people in pain” or “people living in pain.” I want organizations to throw the term “chronic pain” out as well. How much more supportive is the name “American Association for People in Pain” as opposed to the American Chronic Pain Association?

This will be a difficult paradigm to change, especially for professionals and journalists. But without change, “chronic pain” will continue to be used as a tool for hate.  

Janice Reynolds is a retired nurse who specialized in pain management, oncology, and palliative care. She has lectured across the country at medical conferences on different aspects of pain and pain management, and is co-author of several articles in peer reviewed journals. 

Janice has lived with persistent post craniotomy pain since 2009.  She is active with The Pain Community and writes several blogs for them, including a regular one on cooking with pain. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.