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A Prescription for Disaster

In the world of metastatic breast cancer we are accustomed to managing treatment-related side effects, but for some the supportive meds we use utilize to improve our quality of life can also come with a devastating complication — drug dependency.

The MBC patient is often offered a myriad of medications. Many to manage the disease itself, drugs to address the side effects of treatment, and yet more drugs to address the psycho-emotional impacts of living condensed.

Many find their oncologists, psychiatrists and palliative care doctors more than ready to whip out the prescription pad and scrawl an order for whatever ails ya. But for the newly metastatic patient (already in a fragile emotional state) it can be a dangerous spiral and potentially more immediately threatening than the disease itself.

Overmedication and abuse of prescription drugs is common in terminal cancer patients. This is partly due to poor communication between practitioners, but as patients live longer (some for many years) we must consider the impacts of prescription drug abuse and dependency among metastatic patients.

It Happened to Me

I recall my own experience with dependency through a bleary lens. It began with my first oncology visit after my oophorectomy. When asked if I was experiencing pain, my worldsaway response was “yes”, 9 on a scale of 10. Anxiety? Off-the-charts. Sleeplessness? Anorexia? Mania? Check, check, check. Without batting an eye, the nurse practitioner called in several prescriptions to the pharmacy. When I picked them up, my haul consisted of 120 Percocet, 90 Ativan, and 30 Ambien. At my first visit with my psychologist, I walked away with a script for 90 Xanax and 30 Klonopin. And so my descent into compulsive self-medication began.

Over the next 4 months, I’d experience no natural rest — all of my unawake hours spent on my back adrift on an opiate sea. When I’d become lucid enough to remember there was no prescription for a life without cancer, I’d nibble off a splinter of Ambien, chew a Xanax and soon the fear-fueled neurons slowed to a sloppy, languid crawl.

This low, this desolation was a desperation I had never known.

I would eventually stop caring about my appearance, dragging myself to work unshowered and without makeup. I’d only feel joy when I had a prescription to fill at the Home Office pharmacy which I would lovingly cradle in my lap like a cherished pet. It didn’t matter that insurance wouldn’t cover the refills, I’d simply pay full price for the Ambien, Ativan, and Xanax (of which I had already consumed dangerous portions). I would start going to work less and less and then leave the house less and less until I was completely agoraphobic. Even the thought of leaving to go to the pharmacy began to terrify me.

My then husband and I would have explosive fights about what he saw as my refusal to live. I purposely beat myself about my hips and buttocks with a ceramic ladybug music box to mimic a fall so I could excuse myself from Christmas in 2014. This low, this desolation was a desperation I had never known.

Asking For Help

My rock bottom came when the weight of responsibility began to press upon me. I was supposed to pick up my stepdaughter from school on a Wednesday, but as the hours passed, I knew I wasn’t capable of leaving my bed, let alone the house. At the same time my boss was calling asking when I’d be in. My dad was calling and so was my friend Max. In a panic, I reached for the bottle of Percocet with one hand and held my phone in the other. I carefully weighed my options and fumbled at the child-proof cap with dispassionate fingers. I called 911 and my oncologist. This is the day I was committed.

We may not be able to fill a prescription for a life without cancer, but with good communication between ourself and our medical team, perhaps this cancer life won’t be as hard a pill to swallow.

I suffered no withdrawal symptoms in the psychiatric hospital. The medicine I needed was interaction and friendship — a bridge back to relationships, since I had isolated myself from everyone. I needed to know that my life still had value which was a virtue I couldn’t clearly recall in my medicine fog.

The cancer was menacing, but it wasn’t killing me. Prescription drug abuse certainly had a greater potential at the time.

I urge you, if you find yourself abusing prescription drugs in order to numb the pain of this terrifying diagnosis, SEEK HELP. Talk to your oncologist, psychiatrist, a trusted friend. This disease is bad enough on its own without adding dependency to the mix. There is no shame in your candor, no disgrace in questioning a drug that you don’t feel you need.

We may not be able to fill a prescription for a life without cancer, but with good communication between ourself and our medical team, perhaps this cancer life won’t be as hard a pill to swallow.

If you are struggling with addiction or prescription abuse, help can be found by calling the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA). SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357),(also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service) is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Callers can also order free publications and other information.


  • Kelli Davis

    Contributing Writer

    Kelli Davis was diagnosed at 26 with stage I breast cancer. She was diagnosed again stage IV 5 years later, at only 33. Kelli advocates that the current awareness and early detection approach is not working and the narrative doesn’t match what’s really happening behind the pink curtain. She is the creator of the hashtag and Facebook group #IAMSUSAN and the co-founder of the NWA Metsquerade in Arkansas (a fundraiser that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for METAvivor).

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