Pain Management for Cancer Survivors
In March, Real World Health Care will launch a new series focusing on the behavioral health impacts of chronic illnesses. Until then, we will revisit a few of our recent blog posts that touch briefly on related behavioral health issues. This week, we revisit our interview with Judith A. Paice, PhD, RN, who is the lead author for the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s guideline, Management of Chronic Pain in Survivors of Adult Cancer. Dr. Paice is Research Professor of Medicine, Hematology/Oncology, at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and a full member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. Paice’s clinical work focuses on the management of cancer-related pain, and her research focuses on the study of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy. We spoke about the ASCO guideline and the need for clinicians to balance pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical approaches to pain management.
Real World Health Care: Why did ASCO issue a guideline for the management of pain in survivors of adult cancer?
Judith Paice: The oncology field has evolved tremendously in recent years. Not only are people living longer with cancer, but they’re being cured of their disease thanks to some fantastic treatments. These treatments provide good clinical responses, but they can also cause significant toxicity, some of which may lead to chronic pain syndromes. The goal of the guideline was to alert oncologists to the presence of these long-term, persistent pain syndromes. A secondary goal was to provide support for chronic pain syndrome treatment.
RWHC: What are the most important take-aways for clinicians?
JP: First are ASCO’s recommendations for screening and assessment. Second are recommended treatment options, both pharmacological and, equally important, non-pharmacological treatments. The guideline also provides insights and risk mitigation strategies for clinicians around the long-term use of opioids.
Today’s oncologists are faced with a very different pain management phenomenon than they were 20 years ago, when opioids were primarily used at end of life. Opioids are now being used for patients with a much longer survival trajectory — 20 to 30 years or more. As clinicians, we need to ask if such long-term use of opioids is appropriate and safe. How do we go about determining that? The guideline helps oncologists with those types of assessments and decision making.
RWHC: What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing oncologists in managing chronic pain in cancer patients, and how is ASCO helping clinicians manage those challenges?
JP: Our society is facing a serious public health problem in the opioid abuse and misuse epidemic. As a result of this problem, we’ve seen regulations at both the state and federal level that are having a chilling effect on the availability of opioids, even for those in desperate need of these medications. ASCO has a position paper on protecting access to treatment for cancer-related pain that I encourage all clinicians to read. ASCO also advocates for better third-party reimbursement for physical therapy, occupational therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and mental health counseling. These are crucial therapies for patients facing the “new normal” of cancer survivorship, yet most third party payers provide little or no support for these treatments. As clinicians, we need to help our patients maintain function and cope with the fact that their lives are going to be very different. For patients, it’s more than surviving cancer. It’s about finding their own inner strength in survivorship.
New Pain Management Treatments
RWHC: Where do the biggest opportunities lie for new pharmaceutical pain management treatments?
JP: Several new findings in the laboratory may lead to novel agents that do not produce opioid related adverse effects. This is promising, assuming the findings can be translated into a clinical setting. There have also been numerous compounds that proved effective in animal models of pain, but when moved into the clinical setting, they either had adverse effects that weren’t seen in animals, or they didn’t have the efficacy they presented in the lab. It is very difficult to develop a model of cancer pain in animals.
Unfortunately, there haven’t been many completely new drugs. Most of the agents approved recently are slight variations of existing compounds or an update in the delivery method: a spray instead of a tablet, for example. The industry has been more focused recently on abuse-deterrent compounds. This is a somewhat controversial area because while such formulations prevent people from crushing, snorting or injecting the drugs, they don’t keep people from taking more than what is prescribed.
RWHC: What should the role be for non-pharmaceutical pain management therapies in treating cancer patients?
JP: For quite a long time, there was a tendency in medicine to rely only on pharmaceutical therapies. This made sense when patients did not have long-term survival prospects and when managing pain meant helping the patient get from their bed to a chair. Today, cancer patients are living longer. They want to get back to work and function safely without the risk of falls and other complications.
We’ve seen good data around the usefulness of physical therapy, occupational therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy for many chronic pain situations, including cancer-related pain. These non-pharmacologic therapies must go hand-in-hand with pharmaceutical therapies.
Part of the challenge with non-pharmacologic therapies is limited reimbursement. The other big challenge is getting buy-in from patients. Most of us want a quick fix. Redefining expectations can be difficult. Physical and occupational therapy can be demanding, and access to specialists who understand the special needs of those surviving cancer are in short supply. Also, there remains a stigma attached to seeing a mental health counselor. It’s important for cancer patients to know that they aren’t “weak” if they need support to help them cope with the physical and emotional challenges of being a cancer survivor. Our field needs to do a better job educating our patients about the importance of including non-pharmacologic therapies as part of our pain management repertoire.