May 7 (UPI) -- Cancer survivors have a lower risk for a fatal opioid overdose -- from prescription pain medications or illegal drugs -- than those without the disease, an analysis published Thursday by JAMA Oncology shows.
The population-based assessment found that people with no history of cancer are up to 14 times more likely to die from an overdose than cancer survivors.
Many prescription opioid pain medications were developed to treat cancer pain. However, their medical use has been expanded over time, and and so has the number of people who develop opioid dependency or addiction.
"Opioids should be used at the lowest dose and for the shortest period of time necessary -- honestly this is true of all medications," Dr. Fumiko Chino, a radiation oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, told UPI.
"Opioid medications can be a very helpful tool in the pain management arsenal, but I think it's important to stress that they are one of many options."
Concerns about opioid medication use in the United States -- prescriptions, misuse and abuse -- have been on the rise for more than a decade as the nation saw sharp increases in overdoses and overdose-related deaths.
Still, Chino emphasized that while physicians "need to exercise caution around prescribing and using these powerful medications," they "shouldn't be limiting optimal pain control for patients with cancer who are suffering."
The analysis suggests that these drugs can, in fact, be prescribed and used responsibly in cancer care, she said.
For the study, the researchers analyzed data from the National Center for Health Statistics, reviewing death certificates from 2006 to 2016.
They found that during that 10-year period, 193,500 death were caused by opioids in the general population and just 895 among those with cancer. In the general population, the number of opioid-related deaths increased from 5.33 per 100,000 people in 2006 to 8.97 per 100,000 people in 2016.
Among those with cancer, opioid-related deaths rose from 0.52 per 100,000 people to 0.66 per 100,000 people over the same period. Notably, cancer survivors tended to be older and were more likely to have a college degree than those in the general population who died from opioid use.
The most common cancers among those with the disease who died from opioid use were lung, at 22 percent; gastrointestinal, 21 percent, and head and neck, 12 percent.
"Our study provides some reassurance that patients with cancer are not being put at undo risk when their pain is treated with opioid pain medications," Chino said. "This helps inform both patients and providers that continued, cautious use of opioids for cancer related pain is appropriate and well tolerated."
She added, "Cancer survivors and those on treatment should know that it is safe to use these medications under the careful supervision of their doctors."