Cancer & Caregiving

Pain Medication Can Be Vital when Treating Mesothelioma Cancer

Written By:
Jan 09, 2013
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Written By: Tim Povtak,
January 9, 2013

There are a lot of things to worry about when dealing with a diagnosis of mesothelioma cancer.

Getting addicted to the pain medication should not be one of them.

“I wish patients knew that when going through the cancer experience, it’s okay to take your pain medication,” said Erin McMenamin, Radiation Oncology, nurse practitioner at the Abramson Cancer Center, University of Pennsylvania. “Patients spend a lot of time avoiding pain medications because they’re worried about addictions. But in the cancer population, it’s pretty unusual for people to get addicted.”

McMenamin delivered her message on Oncolink, a blog designed for patients at the Abramson Cancer Center. Her topic was, “Common myths about pain medication and pain control.” She was hoping to dispel many of the misconceptions that often make the cancer experience more painful than it should be with modern medicine.

The Abramson Cancer Center is one of the national leaders in cancer research, particularly with mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by an exposure to asbestos that is diagnosed in an estimated 3,000 Americans annually.

Pain is part of the disease, caused either by the natural progression of cancer, or by one of the treatment options. But so is pain management, a field which has progressed considerably in recent years.

While it might be an admirable goal for a cancer patient to avoid as much pain medication as possible, that route can do more harm than good. Although the pain can vary from person to person, peritoneal mesothelioma patients usually have considerable pain in the abdominal area.

Pleural mesothelioma patients have pain around their chest, side and back. Recovering from surgery can intensify the pain throughout the body.

“People have this perception that when they take pain medications, they can’t function, when in fact they probably will be able to function better,” she said. “They say `I don’t want to be a zombie.’ But pain medication won’t make you unable to do anything that requires cognitive skills.”

McMenamin believes the quality of life for a cancer patient is better if the prescribed pain medication is taken as instructed. The absence of pain makes a patient more likely to remain active than a patient who is battling pain every day.

“There is less fatigue. The appetite is generally improved, but people have the perception it’s the other way around, sometimes,” she said. “Patients can make the experience more difficult when they avoid them (pain medications).”

Oncologists today have a much broader variety of pharmaceuticals than in previous decades. And side effects are not as dramatic as they once were. Doctors can adjust doses, adjust the timing of doses, or change medication types if the side effects occur. There are myriad of options. An open line of communication is essential.

Part of treating cancer patients is making sure they are as comfortable as possible. Severe pain often is relieved with stronger pain medicine, which includes a variety of opioids like morphine or oxycodone. Minor aches and pains are handled differently.

“Any time you’re worried about side effects, we can make changes,” McMenamin said. “There are a number of choices when it comes to medication interventions.”

Do you regularly take your pain medications or are you worried about becoming addicted? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook.

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