Cancer and Opioids: Patient Experiences With Stigma (COPES)—A Pilot Study

Hailey W. Bulls*, Aasha I. Hoogland, David Craig, Judith Paice, Young Doo Chang, Ritika Oberoi-Jassal, Sahana Rajasekhara, Meghan Haas, Margarita Bobonis, Brian D. Gonzalez, Diane Portman, Heather S.L. Jim

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Context: Cancer-related pain is a common symptom that is often treated with opioids. However, legislation aimed at containing the opioid crisis, coupled with public fears about opioid risks, may contribute to opioid stigma in cancer patients. To our knowledge, no prior research has examined opioid stigma and stigma-related behavior in this population. Objective: The objectives of this study were to describe opioid use, including reasons for use and overuse and underuse behavior; characterize opioid stigma; and identify potentially maladaptive stigma-related behaviors. Methods: Participants were 125 adults undergoing active cancer treatment seen at the Moffitt Supportive Care Medicine Clinic. Patients completed a brief, anonymous questionnaire evaluating opioid use, opioid stigma, and stigma-related behaviors. Results: Patients were primarily women (65%) aged 45-64 years (49%), most commonly diagnosed with breast (23%) and hematologic (15%) cancer. Among patients who reported opioid use (n = 109), the most common reason for use was pain relief (94%), followed by improved sleep (25%). A subset of patients reported using less (13%) or more (8%) opioid medication than advised. Opioid stigma was endorsed by 59/97 patients prescribed opioids (61%), including fear of addiction (36%), difficulty filling prescriptions (22%), and awkwardness communicating with providers (15%). Stigma-related behaviors were endorsed by 28 (29%) respondents prescribed opioids, with “taking less opioid medication than needed” as the most commonly endorsed behavior (20%). Conclusion: To our knowledge, this study provides the first evidence of opioid stigma and its consequences in cancer patients and offers potential targets for interventions aimed at reducing stigma and encouraging safe, effective opioid use.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)816-819
Number of pages4
JournalJournal of Pain and Symptom Management
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2019


  • Opioids
  • cancer pain
  • opioid stigma
  • pain management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Nursing
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


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