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Opioid Use Drops after Active Treatment, but Most Older Patients with Breast Cancer Continue Treatment for Distress and Anxiety into Survivorship

/ -- As reported in JNCCN, a recent study from McGill University shows that while opioid use increases during treatment in older patients with breast cancer, most do not continue use into survivorship; however, use of anxiolytics and antidepressants remains high in survivors

FORT WASHINGTON, PA--(Marketwired - November 21, 2016) - A new McGill University study published in the November issue of JNCCN - Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network found that most patients with breast cancer aged 65 and older use psychotropic and opioid medications during active treatment and often in the first year of survivorship, despite this population's vulnerability to adverse events. According to the authors, this study highlights the need for a multidimensional approach to distress and anxiety that includes comprehensive psychological intervention.

The study, "Psychotropic and Opioid Medication Use in Older Patients with Breast Cancer across the Care Trajectory: A Population-Based Cohort Study," is available free-of-charge until February 28, 2017 on

According to principle investigator, Ari Meguerditchian, MD, MSc, FRCS, Assistant Professor in the Departments of Surgery and Oncology, and member of the Clinical and Health Informatics Research Group at McGill University, "Women over 65 represent the fastest growing segment of breast cancer survivors. The fact that so many of them need mediations for anxiety, depression, and distress even after active cancer care highlights the fact that we know so little about the specific needs of these patients."

The researchers followed more than 19,500 women, 65 years or older, diagnosed with incident, non-metastatic breast cancer in Quebec, Canada, and analyzed the use of anxiolytics, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and opioids from precancer baseline through active care and into first-year survivorship.

The most prescribed drugs within the population were anxiolytics and antidepressants. Although the percentage of patients on opioids and antipsychotics was lower than the other drugs, with 16.2 percent of patients using antipsychotics and 25 percent using opioids, the authors noted a marked increase in use of opioids and antipsychotics-4.5- and 7-fold, respectively-from baseline to active care.

More than 50 percent of women studied used anxiolytics during care-an increase from 36 percent at baseline-and the vast majority of those women (44.4 percent) continued use of the medication into first-year survivorship. Moreover, use of antidepressants among the cohort was 22.4 percent, with 22.3 percent continuing use into survivorship.

Dr. Meguerditchian further noted, "Chronic use of these drugs is related to an increased risk of adverse events among these women, notably medication-related falls and injuries. Many studies suggest that this segment of the population is over-medicated."

Conversely, the authors saw a notable drop-off in use of antipsychotics and opioids in first-year survivorship. This is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that antipsychotics and opioids are used to treat physical side effects of treatment, such as extreme nausea and pain, which decrease dramatically after treatment. Anxiolytics and antidepressants, on the other hand, are generally prescribed to combat the psychological aspects of diagnosis and treatment such as distress and anxiety, which have an extended effect on the patient.

"Our findings raise important questions about the lasting psychological impact of cancer, such as uncertainty of recurrence, family hardships, etc. Are we supporting our older patients as they move to survivorship? How can we best address their needs?" said Dr. Meguerditchian.

According to Crystal Denlinger, MD, FACP, Chief, GI Medical Oncology, and Associate Professor in the Department of Hematology/Oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center, "This study represents an important overview of high-risk medication use in a vulnerable population, namely older breast cancer survivors. The fact that women increase their use of psychotropic and opioid medications during treatment is not surprising due to the current treatment of nonmetastatic breast cancer (ie, surgery and cytotoxic chemotherapy), but the trend toward continued use into survivorship warrants further evaluation as to cause. Given the current campaign to curb opioid abuse in the general population, understanding the reasons for use of these medications and development of better interventions to address underlying causes is critical to ensuring the best outcomes for this, and potentially other, patient populations."

About JNCCN - Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network
More than 23,000 oncologists and other cancer care professionals across the United States read JNCCN-Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. This peer-reviewed, indexed medical journal provides the latest information about best clinical practices, health services research, and translational medicine. JNCCN features updates on the NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®), review articles elaborating on guidelines recommendations, health services research, and case reports highlighting molecular insights in patient care. JNCCN is published by Harborside Press. Visit To inquire if you are eligible for a FREE subscription to JNCCN, visit

About the National Comprehensive Cancer Network
The National Comprehensive Cancer Network® (NCCN®), a not-for-profit alliance of 27 of the world's leading cancer centers devoted to patient care, research, and education, is dedicated to improving the quality, effectiveness, and efficiency of cancer care so that patients can live better lives. Through the leadership and expertise of clinical professionals at NCCN Member Institutions, NCCN develops resources that present valuable information to the numerous stakeholders in the health care delivery system. As the arbiter of high-quality cancer care, NCCN promotes the importance of continuous quality improvement and recognizes the significance of creating clinical practice guidelines appropriate for use by patients, clinicians, and other health care decision-makers.

The NCCN Member Institutions are: Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, Omaha, NE; Case Comprehensive Cancer Center/University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center and Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute, Cleveland, OH; City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center, Los Angeles, CA; Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center | Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, Boston, MA; Duke Cancer Institute, Durham, NC; Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia, PA; Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT; Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center/Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Seattle, WA; The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, MD; Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, Chicago, IL; Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, Phoenix/Scottsdale, AZ, Jacksonville, FL, and Rochester, MN; Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY; Moffitt Cancer Center, Tampa, FL; The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center - James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute, Columbus, OH; Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, NY; Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO; St. Jude Children's Research Hospital/The University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Memphis, TN; Stanford Cancer Institute, Stanford, CA; University of Alabama at Birmingham Comprehensive Cancer Center, Birmingham, AL; UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, La Jolla, CA; UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, San Francisco, CA; University of Colorado Cancer Center, Aurora, CO; University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, Ann Arbor, MI; The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, TX; University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center, Madison, WI; Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, Nashville, TN; and Yale Cancer Center/Smilow Cancer Hospital, New Haven, CT.

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Katie Kiley Brown