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Pain in Cancer Survivors: Assess, Monitor, and Ask for Help

Patients are in plenty of hurt, VA palliative care specialist says, but smart strategies can help make a difference.


 

SAN DIEGO—As patients with cancer live longer, pain is going to become an even bigger challenge for clinicians, a palliative care specialist told cancer specialists in a presentation at the annual meeting of the Association of VA Hematology/Oncology (AVAHO) in September, and decisions about treatment are becoming more complicated amid the opioid epidemic.

Fortunately, guidelines and clinical experience offer helpful insight into the best practices, said hematologist/oncologist Andrea Ruskin, MD, medical director of palliative care at Veterans Administration (VA) Connecticut Healthcare System (VACHS).

As Ruskin pointed out, two-thirds of newly diagnosed cancer patients are living for at least 5 years, “but with this progress comes challenges.” More than one-third (37%) of cancer survivors report cancer pain, 21% have noncancer pain, and 45% have both. About 5% to 8% of VA cancer survivors use opioids for the long term, she said, although there have been few studies in this population.

Among patients with head and neck cancer, specifically, chronic pain affects 45%, and severe pain affects 11%. Subclinical PTSD, depression, anxiety, and low quality of life are common in this population. “We may cure them, but they have a lot of issues going forward.”

One key strategy is to perform a comprehensive pain assessment at the first visit, and then address pain at every subsequent visit. She recommended a physician resource from the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and a template may be useful to provide helpful questions, Ruskin said.

At VACHS certain questions are routine. “Is pain interfering with your function? Sometimes people say it’s always a 10, but it’s not affecting function at all. Ask if the medicine is working. And how are they taking it? Sometimes they say, ‘I’m taking that for sleep,’ and we say ‘No, Mr. Smith, that is not a sleep medication.’”

Be aware that some patients may use nonmedical opioids, she said. And set expectations early on. “Safe opioid use starts with the very first prescription,” she said. “If I have somebody with myeloma or head and neck cancer, I make it very clear that my goal is that we want you off the opioids after the radiation or once the disease is in remission. I really make an effort at the very beginning to make sure that we're all on the same page.”

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