Ronni Gordon is  a cancer survivor and long-time journalist who has written about her journey, about health and fitness, and about how she and others have prevailed in difficult situations. She brings to her writing a mix of personal experience with knowledge about the health-care system and how cancer patients can navigate it. A graduate of Vassar College with a master's degree in journalism from Boston University, she is a freelance writer who worked in daily newspapers for more than 30 years. She has been published in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dana FarberCancer Institute magazine, and Cancer Today magazine. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her dog, Maddie, short for Madison (Avenue) in honor of her hometown, New York, and is mother of three grown children, Ben, Joe, and Katie

Ronni Gordon

Painkiller Overuse Poses Challenge to Survivors

Tuesday, 29 Oct 2013 09:57 AM

By Ronni Gordon

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The news last week that the Food and Drug Administration was recommending tighter controls on how doctors prescribe commonly used narcotic painkillers was pertinent to cancer patients and survivors facing delayed side effects or secondary cancers.
 
The recommendations stem from the fact that prescription drugs account for about three-quarters of all drug overdose deaths in the United States, with the number of deaths from narcotic painkillers, or opioids, quadrupling since 1999, according to federal data.
 
I understand how this overuse starts, from experience in having taken my own share of oxycodone. While hospitalized for chemotherapy, I took it for mouth sores and other painful side effects. Obviously in the hospital you are not in danger of taking too much, because they are not going to give it to you.
 
But what about when you take a prescription at home and you have some left over or could probably get a refill?
 
When I had a small piece of my tongue removed due to the presence of pre-cancerous cells, the pain was intense. Thankfully it dwindled and I was able to go most of the day without taking a pill, but by 5 p.m. I was saying to myself, "I need my afternoon narcotic!"
 
Was it because of pain or because I liked the way it made me feel? This is a good question to ask, suggested by one of my caregivers when I voiced concern about becoming addicted.
 
I told my children, who were old enough to deal with this, that I could see how easily you could get addicted and I was unsure if really needed a refill.
 
"Don't do it, Mom," they said. I didn’t, and the pain gradually subsided.
 
(It was oxycodone or nothing because I have contraindications when it comes to taking over-the-counter pain medicine.)
 
On the other hand, patients need to keep ahead of pain and treat it before it gets intense, and they should not be afraid to take their medicine.
 
Recently, after I had a cancerous spot removed from my kidney, the pain from the incision was practically unbearable. The instructions said it wasn’t quite time to take another dose of oxycodone. Crying, I called the office of the doctor who had done the surgery. A receptionist said someone would get back to me by the end of the day. Unacceptable!
 
I paged my go-to person, the transplant nurse who follows me regularly. She called right back and said to go ahead and take another pill.
 
If you don’t know what to do, call and call again. If you can't get a doctor or nurse to call you back, you can always call your pharmacist.
 
 

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