Opioid use may be higher among cancer survivors, as they were more likely to fill a prescription for the drug than matched control subjects in a recent study. Although the research has not found a higher amount of opioid abuse among cancer survivors, the authors said their findings are cause for concern considering most abusers start off using a doctor’s prescription.

Research published online in CANCER found that the rate of opioid prescribing among cancer survivors was 1.22 times higher. Rates were even higher among survivors who were young, had a lower income, and who were from rural neighborhoods. This high rate of opioid prescription refills still existed 10 or more years after an initial diagnosis. While opioids are commonly used among cancer patients to help them deal with chronic pain caused by the disease, the lingering use suggests that in some cases, the patient has developed a dependency.

Read: Heroin, Fentanyl, And Opioid Users Are Developing Amnesia, But Doctors Don’t Know Why

"Our research findings raise concerns about the diagnosis and management of chronic pain problems among survivors stemming from their cancer diagnosis or treatment," said study researcher Dr. Rinku Sutradhar from the University of Toronto in a recent statement. "Physicians providing primary care to cancer survivors should consider close examination of reasons for continued opioid use to differentiate chronic pain from dependency."

Sutradhar also suggests that cancer survivors can play a role in ensuring that opioid use during their recovery does not develop into something more dangerous. She suggests that cancer survivors inform their primary care physician about their complete history of opioid use, including their personal experiences with the drug.

These results are based on data from more than 17,000 adults, more than 8,600 of whom are cancer survivors. Gender seemed to make no difference in the rate of prescription refillings. The researchers emphasize that the purpose of their study was not to discourage opioid use in cancer patients, as the drug can play a vital role during their treatment and recovery. Instead, the researchers want both survivors and their doctors to take a closer look at what’s going on post-recovery, and suggest more thorough management of opioid dosage prescriptions in the years following cancer survival, ABC News reported.

Preventing opioid abuse is a priority, as the U.S. is in the middle of an opioid epidemic that costs tens of thousands of lives everyday, The BBC reported. In addition to legal painkillers, individuals often overdose on heroin. What’s more, many heroin users started off abusing prescription painkillers. According to The BBC, one of the biggest ways we can prevent this epidemic from continuing is to stop over-prescribing and ensure that these drugs go only to those who need them.

Source: Sutradhar R, Lokkuu A, Barbera L. Cancer survivorship and opioid prescribing rates: A population-based matched cohort study among individuals with and without a history of cancer. Cancer . 2017

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