Pediatric Cancer Survivors at Risk for Opioid Misuse

Neil Osterweil

May 06, 2021

Survivors of childhood cancers are at increased risk for prescription opioid misuse compared with their peers, a review of a claims database revealed.

Among more than 8,000 patients age 21 or younger who had completed treatment for hematologic, central nervous system, bone, or gonadal cancers, survivors were significantly more likely than were their peers to have an opioid prescription, longer duration of prescription, and higher daily doses of opioids, and to have opioid prescriptions overlapping for a week or more, reported Xu Ji, PhD, of Emory University in Atlanta.

Teenage and young adult patients were at higher risk than were patients younger than 12, and the risk was highest among patients who had been treated for bone malignancies, as well as those who had undergone any hematopoietic stem cell transplant.

"These findings suggest that health care providers who regularly see survivors should explore nonopioid options to help prevent opioid misuse, and screen for potential misuse in those who actually receive opioids," she said in an oral abstract presented during the annual meeting of the American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology.

"This is a really important topic, and something that's probably been underinvestigated and underexplored in our patient population," said session comoderator Sheri Spunt, MD, Endowed Professor of Pediatric Cancer at Stanford (Calif.) University.

Database Review

Ji and colleagues used the IBM MarketScan Commercial Claims and Encounters database from 2009 to 2018 to examine prescription opioid use, potential misuse, and substance use disorders in pediatric cancer survivors in the first year after completion of therapy, and to identify factors associated with risk for misuse or substance use disorders. Specifically, the period of interest was the first year after completion of all treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and stem cell transplant (Abstract 2015).

They looked at deidentified records on any opioid prescription and for treatment of any opioid use or substance use disorder (alcohol, psychotherapeutic drugs, marijuana, or illicit drug use disorders).

They defined indicators of potential misuse as either prescriptions for long-acting or extended-release opioids for acute pain conditions; opioid and benzodiazepine prescriptions overlapping by a week or more; opioid prescriptions overlapping by a week or more; high daily opioid dosage (prescribed daily dose of 100 or greater morphine milligram equivalent [MME]; and/or opioid dose escalation (an increase of at least 50% in mean MMEs per month twice consecutively within 1 year).

They compared outcomes between a total of 8,635 survivors and 44,175 controls, matched on a 1:5 basis with survivors by age, sex, and region, and continuous enrollment during the 1-year posttherapy period.

In each of three age categories – 0 to 11 years, 12 to 17 years, and 18 years and older – survivors were significantly more likely to have received an opioid prescription, at 15% for the youngest survivors vs. 2% of controls, 25% vs. 8% for 12- to 17-year-olds, and 28% vs. 12% for those 18 and older (P < .01 for all three comparisons).

Survivors were also significantly more likely to have any indicator of potential misuse (1.6% vs. 0.1%, 4.6% vs. 0.5%, and 7.4% vs. 1.2%, respectively, P < .001 for all) and both the youngest and oldest groups (but not 12- to 17-year-olds) were significantly more like to have opioid or substance use disorder (0.4% vs. 0% for 0-11 years, 5.76% vs. 4.2% for 18 years and older, P < .001 for both).

Among patients with any opioid prescription, survivors were significantly more likely than were controls of any age to have indicators for potential misuse. For example, 13% of survivors aged 18 years and older had prescriptions for high opioid doses, compared with 5% of controls, and 12% had prescription overlap, vs. 2%.

Compared with patients with leukemia, patients treated for bone malignancies had a 6% greater risk for having any indicator of misuse, while patients with other malignancies were at slightly lower risk for misuse than those who completed leukemia therapy.

Patients who received any stem cell transplant had an 8.4% greater risk for misuse compared with patients who had surgery only.

Opioids Pre- and Posttreatment?

"Being someone who takes care of a lot of bone cancer patients, I do see patients with these issues," Spunt said.

Audience member Jack H. Staddon, MD, PhD, of the Billings (Montana) Clinic, noted the possibility that opioid use during treatment may have been carried on into the posttreatment period, and asked whether use of narcotics during treatment was an independent risk factor for posttreatment narcotic use or misuse.

The researchers plan to investigate this question in future studies, Ji replied.

They did not report a study funding source. Ji and coauthors and Staddon reported no relevant disclosures.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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