The little pills at first seem almost the stuff of miracles, or magic, bringing palpable relief countless cancer patients across the globe had despaired of ever finding.
The awful nausea and at times nearly nonstop vomiting suddenly subsides. The anxiety that comes with suffering from a potentially fatal disease diminishes markedly. Often, even the physical symptoms of cancer like chronic pain ease.
But for thousands of patients, the seeming cure for so much of what ailed them, benzodiazepines, often used to treat anxiety, proved worse than the disease itself.
Adnan Asar watched in horror as his wife, Donna, quickly descended into a hellish withdrawal from benzos prescribed in 2016 to relieve severe side effects of chemotherapy, including nausea and vomiting.
Asar says doctors told her she could quit cold turkey, and suffer major withdrawal symptoms such as depression, mood swings, chronic pain, insomnia, severe anxiety and panic attacks – or stay on the medications for life.
Desperation Leads to Answers
Desperate, Asar abandoned his successful career as a tech executive at major companies and worked tirelessly to assemble a team of top doctors and therapists who helped Donna through a grueling, nine-month recovery from benzo dependence.
He then founded Lucid Lane, a well-financed startup that helps other patients break free of, or find alternatives to benzos and opioids. The San Francisco Bay Area company estimates that each year, doctors prescribe benzos to 13 million Americans and opioids to 50 million after surgery or in conjunction with cancer treatments.
“Status quo medical care failed Donna and millions of patients like her,” says Asar, whose wife is now cancer-free. “Every year, tens of millions of patients like Donna slide into opioid and benzodiazepine dependence and live with chronic pain and mental health challenges — and nobody is helping them prevent that painful fate.”
Indeed, experts, supported by a growing body of research, point to the risks of over-prescription of benzos to cancer patients leading to protracted and extraordinarily difficult withdrawal.
Research Underscores Dangers of Benzos
A large-scale study last year, for instance, found that the use of benzos among cancer patients greatly increased their risk of becoming dependent on them.
The study – published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and based on a review of about 46,000 breast cancer patients prescribed the medications to relieve side effects of chemotherapy – found that 15.6% of women who filled at least one benzodiazepine prescription during chemo filled at least two more in the following year. That’s more than 15 times the rate of breast cancer patients not prescribed a benzo, researchers reported.
They urged physicians treating cancer patients to instead consider alternatives to benzos, citing “myriad dangers” that can persist long after recovery from cancer, including the risk of dependence and misuse of the meds.
The study pointed to alternatives to benzos to reduce chemo side effects, including antidepressants, cannabinoid blockers and non-medication treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, yoga and music therapy.
Withdraw Inflicts “24-7 Torture”
Dr. Christy Huff, a cardiologist and cancer survivor, cofounded the Benzodiazepine Information Coalition as a direct result of her hellish withdrawal from prescription Xanax, then Valium, despite tapering off over a period of more than two years.
Huff recalled suffering withdrawal symptoms like severe panic attacks, difficulty breathing, a racing heart, chest tightness and inability to swallow.
She lost 15 pounds, looked like a “skeleton” and woke in terror often after sleeping only three hours.
She says physicians dismissed concerns she had raised after researching benzo dependence and withdrawal. Some told her she could easily quit benzos without tapering off and another accused her of being a drug-seeking addict.
“There’s a lack of basic information about the risks among too many physicians,” Huff says. “I was just blindsided, and it was horrific, 24-7 torture so I want to spare other patients going through that.”
Huff recalled a friend, Lori Heckenkamp, who ultimately died of ovarian cancer in July 2017.
A Dying Cancer Patient Delivers a Desperate Plea
For the last two years of her life, she endured the misery of severe symptoms of Ativan withdrawal, including crushing headaches, chills, insomnia, nausea, muscle weakness, inability to concentrate, dizziness and pain coursing through her body.
It had been prescribed to ease her anxiety and minimize side effects of chemo as she prepared for the treatment.
But Heckenkamp wrote in a 2017 piece published by the Benzodiazepine Information Coalition:
“At no time was I given any warning about this drug’s potential for creating dependence and severe, debilitating, protracted withdrawal symptoms. I was not told that Ativan, like all benzodiazepines, was meant only for short term use of just 2-3 weeks.
“And so, being uninformed, I made the gravest mistake of my life. I said yes to the prescription…
“If I were to receive a phone call tomorrow that a complete cure had been discovered that would forever eliminate ovarian cancer from my body with just one magic pill, I would not care. It would not matter to me, because I would still be sick from the benzodiazepine, and that is something I can no longer continue to endure. The daily misery of benzodiazepine illness far eclipses the horror of cancer. That is a message I want to burn into your brain and your heart so that you never forget it.”