Cancer and Addiction
The Connection Between Cancer and Substance Abuse
There are few lives that haven’t been touched by cancer in some way.
What fewer people realize is that substance abuse may actually be a risk factor for certain kinds of cancer, and likewise that a cancer diagnosis might lead to new substance abuse issues.
As if the pervasive nature of substance abuse weren’t troubling enough, continuing research suggests that it might actually be linked to the three most dreaded words in the medical industry: “you have cancer.”
Understanding Substance Abuse as A Cancer Risk Factor
It’s no secret that many substances have negative physical repercussions.
Strange as it may seem, there is concrete evidence that some substances can actually increase cancer risk in a statistically significant way. This risk occurs due to the fact that different substances cause different sorts of dysregulation within a chronic user’s system.
One of the most common culprits for increased cancer risk due to abuse is alcohol. In fact, research suggests that alcohol can contribute to seven different types of cancer. One of these (somewhat unsurprisingly) is liver cancer; the others include mouth cancer, throat cancer, bowel cancer, and breast cancer.
Certain types of cancer caused by alcohol abuse make some logical sense. That is to say, alcohol is ingested through the mouth, travels down the throat, then makes its way through the digestive system. However, other types (like breast cancer) may seem unrelated; because alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream, its damaging effects travel throughout the entire body.
Likewise, mounting evidence suggests that opioid abuse can cause six different types of cancer. A 2016 study revealed a statistically significant increase in bladder, kidney, mouth, esophagus, larynx, and pharynx cancers in opioid users as compared with non-users.
Though not quite as prolific, amphetamines have also proven a risk factor for the development of cancer. For now, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is considered the only confirmed type of cancer that can be caused by amphetamines, but further studies are necessary to investigate other possible types as well.
Important as it is to understand that substances can cause cancer, it’s also critical for anyone with a loved one suffering from cancer to understand how a diagnosis can lead to substance abuse, too.
In addition to physical cravings, someone with an addiction issue will also spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about their drug of choice. These thoughts become a compulsion and impossible to control, which leads to drug-seeking behavior that can sometimes be criminal.
Feelings of depression, sadness, anxiety, despair, and the like are often at the root of substance abuse. The substance might temporarily mask these feelings, but they return once the high wears off, creating a vicious circle of drug abuse.
Taking a substance will temporarily stop the cravings and compulsion for it, but soon the same feelings return. In time, it takes more and more of the same substance to achieve the same effect it once had.
People addicted to drugs and alcohol may feel like they have no control over their drug use. Refraining from using or stopping seems to be an impossibility for them. The substance controls them, rather than the other way around.
Someone addicted to drugs or alcohol will continue to seek them out even if their addiction has made them lose friends, family, spouses, and jobs. Drug-seeking behavior can even lead to diseases such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.
Assessing The Risk of Substance Abuse in Cancer Patients
To help cancer sufferers cope with the physical pain they’re forced to endure, doctors will often prescribe opioid painkillers, like oxycodone or morphine. While these prescriptions are highly effective at taking the edge off of pain, they’re also highly addictive. That means that cancer patients are forced to choose between enduring pain and opening themselves up to the risk of addiction.
As one might expect, the widespread prescription of opioid painkillers leads to a high rate of addiction in cancer patients and survivors. Obviously, addiction poses new hardships for someone, even if they are able to overcome cancer.
Chronic pain is just one of the reasons that cancer sufferers might become addicted to a substance, though. It’s difficult to maintain a positive outlook after being diagnosed with cancer, particularly if the prognosis is rather bleak. This can lead cancer patients to abuse substances as a means of numbing their emotional anguish.
Alcohol is the most commonly misused substance used to help cope with cancer, but virtually any drug could fill the same void. As one would expect, cancer patients with a history of substance misuse are at the highest risk of developing an addiction in the wake of their diagnosis.
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Compounding Risk Factors and The Importance of Treating Addiction
It’s important to understand that every risk factor for cancer is not separate—they pile on top of each other and compound into virtual certainty that one will develop cancer. To break this down, everyone already has a high risk of developing cancer at some point in their life simply because they’re human. Lifestyle factors and family history account for the rest of the risk.
For this reason, anyone struggling with substance abuse should seek help as early as possible. For those whose loved ones are struggling with addiction, it’s important to guide them toward treatment before too much damage is already done.
Unfortunately, even completely abstaining from damaging substances in the future won’t completely eliminate the risk for cancer set in motion by chronic use, much in the same way that a smoker can’t completely eliminate their risk for lung cancer even if they nix cigarettes.
Still, the likelihood of receiving a cancer diagnosis can fall by about 30% every year after quitting, and that kind of assurance is nothing to sneeze at. Many drugs wage internal wars on their users’ bodies, and that long term decay simply cannot be allowed.
Choosing Treatment to Cut Cancer Risk
There’s no guarantee that cutting out chronic substance use will keep a person from ever developing cancer in their lifetime, but abstaining from drugs will certainly keep past users from heightening their risk for cancer.
The right level of treatment for a particular user depends on that individual; for some, inpatient rehabilitation is necessary; others do will with outpatient programs. The important thing is that an addict receives proper treatment in an environment that feels productive and constructive so they can focus on maintaining their health.
For guidance on the path to recovery and health, contact Nexus Recovery and enjoy a life free from the damaging stranglehold of substance abuse.
If you or a loved one are suffering from alcohol or drug addiction, we’re here to help. Contact us today and speak with one of our trusted recovery advisors.