New Persistent Opioid Use Among Patients With Cancer After Curative-Intent Surgery

J Clin Oncol. 2017 Dec 20;35(36):4042-4049. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2017.74.1363. Epub 2017 Oct 19.


Purpose The current epidemic of prescription opioid misuse has increased scrutiny of postoperative opioid prescribing. Some 6% to 8% of opioid-naïve patients undergoing noncancer procedures develop new persistent opioid use; however, it is unknown if a similar risk applies to patients with cancer. We sought to define the risk of new persistent opioid use after curative-intent surgery, identify risk factors, and describe changes in daily opioid dose over time after surgery. Methods Using a national data set of insurance claims, we identified patients with cancer undergoing curative-intent surgery from 2010 to 2014. We included melanoma, breast, colorectal, lung, esophageal, and hepato-pancreato-biliary/gastric cancer. Primary outcomes were new persistent opioid use (opioid-naïve patients who continued filling opioid prescriptions 90 to 180 days after surgery) and daily opioid dose (evaluated monthly during the year after surgery). Logistic regression was used to identify risk factors for new persistent opioid use. Results A total of 68,463 eligible patients underwent curative-intent surgery and filled opioid prescriptions. Among opioid-naïve patients, the risk of new persistent opioid use was 10.4% (95% CI, 10.1% to 10.7%). One year after surgery, these patients continued filling prescriptions with daily doses similar to chronic opioid users ( P = .05), equivalent to six tablets per day of 5-mg hydrocodone. Those receiving adjuvant chemotherapy had modestly higher doses ( P = .002), but patients with no chemotherapy still had doses equivalent to five tablets per day of 5-mg hydrocodone. Across different procedures, the covariate-adjusted risk of new persistent opioid use in patients receiving adjuvant chemotherapy was 15% to 21%, compared with 7% to 11% for those with no chemotherapy. Conclusion New persistent opioid use is a common iatrogenic complication in patients with cancer undergoing curative-intent surgery. This problem requires changes to prescribing guidelines and patient counseling during the surveillance and survivorship phases of care.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / administration & dosage*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Neoplasms / surgery*
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / etiology
  • Postoperative Care / methods
  • Postoperative Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Prescription Drug Misuse / statistics & numerical data*
  • Retrospective Studies


  • Analgesics, Opioid