Experts Warn Rx Opioids Being Denied to Breast Cancer Patients

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Patients with advanced breast cancer are being denied opioid pain medication due to lack of supply in poor countries and a backlash against opioid addiction in the United States, according to experts at an international conference on breast cancer recently held in Lisbon.

In a session agreeing to new guidelines for treating breast cancer, oncology experts at the Advanced Breast Cancer Fifth International Consensus Conference also called for better access to a group of anti-cancer drugs called CDK4/6 inhibitors. The drugs help breast cancer patients live longer and improve their quality of life, but are often not available.  

The guidelines also warn that cancer patients should not have limits placed on their access to adequate pain control.

“Patients with advanced breast cancer can suffer pain and other symptoms, particularly towards the end of their lives. We need to ensure that appropriate pain medications and other symptom interventions are available to them,” said conference co-chair Eric Winer, MD, Director of Breast Cancer Program at Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in Boston.

“We acknowledge that the misuse of opioids is a big problem, particularly in the United States, but we need to make sure that in trying to deal with this problem we do not interfere with pain management in cancer patients. In addition, in some low- and middle-income countries, such as some in Africa, there are problems with patients being able to access any form of pain relief, and this needs to be addressed urgently.”


The panel of experts also called for more research into the use of cannabis for managing pain and other symptoms in patients with advanced breast cancer. But they cautioned that cannabis should not replace pain relievers that have been proven to work.

“The panel encourages research on the potential role of cannabis to assist in pain and symptom control but strongly stresses that it cannot replace proven medicines, such as morphine, for adequate pain control,” the guideline state.

Over two million new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed worldwide ever year, and there are about 600,000 deaths annually from the disease.

Confusion Over CDC Guideline

Although the CDC’s 2016 opioid guideline is only intended for primary care physicians treating non-cancer pain, the recommendations include patients “who have completed cancer treatment, are in clinical remission, and are under cancer surveillance only.”  

Experts 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.  The CDC’s recommendations also conflict with cancer treatment guidelines that suggest doctors use both short and long-acting opioids when treating flares from cancer pain. The CDC recommends against long-acting opioids because of the potential risk of addiction.

The conflicting recommendations have caused confusion for oncologists and pharmacists, and agony for cancer patients not getting proper pain relief.

Earlier this year, a Rite Aid pharmacist refused to fill an opioid prescription for a California woman with Stage 4 terminal breast cancer.  April Doyle posted a tearful video online about her experience at the pharmacy that went viral. The pharmacist and a Rite Aid manager later apologized to Doyle for the incident.  

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