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Prescribed Addiction

News & Features | October 18, 2010

Think of a heroin addict—pale, gaunt, strung out. This may be the stereotype, but it by no means the rule. As prescription opiates become heavily prescribed to those suffering from terminal illnesses, more and more former cancer patients are turning to street drugs like heroin to find the same high.

A typical cancer patient suffers through months of pain. When his doctor administers Oxycontin or Vicodin to help, no one thinks twice. While the patient is lying in a hospital bed, no one worries about the fact that this patient is taking an incredibly addictive drug. Because of the painkillers, the patient will make it through the night. However, recovery from cancer now means overcoming severe addiction to opiate street drugs.

The prominence of drugs in today’s society reflects the amount of power that a drug can hold in the treatment of diseases and also illustrates the power that the influence can acquire in the wake of an illness. Oxycontin may have saved this patient’s life, but the lives ruined as a result of drug addiction can be devastating. This patient’s story is more common than we may think.

From Fentanyl to Oxycontin, doctors prescribe a wide range of drugs in an effort to ease the suffering of their patients. Because of this, drugs introduced into the patient’s life for purely medicinal purposes can become deadly vices. Since the ‘90s, prescriptions for opioids—a category of drugs used in treatment of serious pain—has increased by a factor of 10.  While these addictive pills are intended for serious medicinal use, the casual way patients consume them is a major problem. Schedule II substances need a written prescription from a doctor, but Schedule III’s require no more than a phone call. Vicodin, a wildly addictive Schedule III drug, is only a phone call away.

Doctors do not consider the risks of addiction when they prescribe these life-saving drugs. If a patient faces a life-threatening condition, they figure, what’s the harm in alleviating their pain? Sadly, many doctors don’t see their former patients scoring hard drugs on the street to feel that same sense of elation.

With such easy access to prescription drugs, there are countless avenues to addiction.  For most patients, the slow weaning off of the drugs as they recover creates a blurred line between treatment of disease and subsequent reliance on pills.

“Contrary to stereotype, the people most at risk in this epidemic are not the usual pill-popping suspects—the dorm rats and users of street drugs. Rather, they’re so-called ‘naïve users’ in the 35-64 age group—mostly baby boomers, with their aching bodies and their long romance with pharmaceutical chemistry,” a Time article on the subject reported.

Many blame parents and celebrities setting bad examples for their children for the high percentage of teenage prescription drug addiction. Only small portion of kids use Vicodin, however, because of its presence in the medicine cabinet. The reality can’t be escaped that a growing number of people are addicted to drugs because their doctors prescribed them—these drugs were the key to their survival at the time.

So where is the line drawn between addiction and treatment? Society draws one that can often be misconstrued, but is clear in one sense—when the patient is taking Oxycontin because he has cancer, it is considered a positive thing to do. As soon as that cancer patient leaves that hospital and is taking Oxycontin because they can’t stop, that’s when we find ourselves in the middle of a huge problem. The individual is no longer a cancer patient in the eyes of society; he’s become an addict. Life for an addict is much different than life for a cancer patient. Societal treatment of an addict is not characterized by pity, kindness, and a genuine sense of altruism. It is characterized by disdain, disgust, and a generally condescending attitude.

For the patient, however, where is this line drawn? Does he risk a life of addiction and pain to temporarily relieve his cancer pains? Does he even have another option? Where does this individual find that delicate balance between taking Vicodin because he is a cancer patient, and taking too much Vicodin because his body is so desperately craving it? In this slippery slope to drug addiction, the lines are blurred and the answer may not always be black and white.