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For 1 in 10 Cancer Patients, Surgery Means Opioid Dependence

More than 10 percent of people who had never taken opioids prior to curative-intent surgery for cancer continued to take the drugs three to six months later, according to a new Michigan OPEN study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The risk is even greater for those who are treated with chemotherapy after surgery.

“We wanted to look at patients who had potentially curable disease, such as early stage breast cancer, colon cancer or melanoma. These patients deserve special attention, because if they’re going to be free from cancer, we’d also like them not to be on opioids long term,” says lead study author Jay Lee, M.D., a general surgery resident at Michigan Medicine and Michigan OPEN research fellow.

The team used a national data set of insurance claims to identify 39,877 cancer patients who had never previously used opioids and were prescribed the drugs after undergoing curative-intent surgery from 2010 to 2014.

Of this group, 10 percent continued to fill opioid prescriptions with high daily opioid dose — equivalent to six tablets per day of 5-milligram hydrocodone — three months after surgery. Daily opioid doses remained at this level even one year after surgery.