Opioids and cancer: friend or foe?

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Abstract

Purpose of review

Most cancer patients experience pain and many will require opioids. However, the effects of opioids on cancer progression, metastasis, and recurrence is increasingly being questioned. There is evidence that opioids affect immune system function, angiogenesis, apoptosis, and invasion in a potentially deleterious manner. This review will examine the preclinical and clinical evidence.

Recent findings

Recent clinical data have struggled to find robust evidence that opioids promote cancer progression. Although most study has involved morphine, differential effects of other opioids on immune function and cancer are revealing a more complex picture.

Summary

Although there is a biologically plausible story, evidence for the action of opioids on cancer is mixed. Indeed, it may even be that in the chronic setting morphine has a beneficial effect on outcome in certain cancer types. This review critically examines and evaluates the evidence for the action of opioids on the processes involved in cancer progression. In the light of the uncertainty of opioid effect on cancer, any decision making should be tempered by knowing that stress and pain undoubtedly contribute to cancer progression.

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