Although opioid-related deaths are increasing in the general U.S. population, leading to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declaring it a public health emergency, new research shows that the increase is much smaller among patients with cancer, even though opioids are used as an option for cancer-related pain. The findings were published in JAMA Oncology.

Using data from the National Center for Health Statistics, researchers identified 193,500 opioid-related deaths in the general U.S. population and 895 in cancer survivors from 2006–2016. That’s an increase of 5.33 to 8.97 per 100,000 in the general population (p < 0.001) and 0.52 to 0.66 per 100,000 in the cancer population (p < 0.001). The cancer survivors were most commonly diagnosed with lung (22.3%), gastrointestinal (20.9%), head and neck (11.7%), and hematologic (11.3%) cancers.

“Death from opioids as the primary cause as documented in death certificates is 10 times less likely to occur in cancer survivors versus the general population,” the researchers wrote. “These findings confirm prior research showing that opioid-related hospitalizations among patients with cancer are rare but slowly increasing over time. This may be because of increased survivorship rates with commensurately higher rates of chronic pain or increased abuse of opioid medications. Continued care should be taken when treating cancer-related pain.”