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Opiates are truly a lifesaver for people with chronic pain

Kudos to enlightened health professionals who understand the importance of having opiate-based pain medication available for people who truly need it.

I am 73, and one of those people on pain meds who could not tolerate living without them. I had to resign my job as a professor at Buffalo State College in 2002 because sitting or standing for periods longer than half an hour was intolerable. That was a sad day in my life because I was only 58 and loved my job. I had recently received the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and was at the top of my profession. I did not want to retire. But chronic pain made it a necessity.

You might ask what precipitated my pain. In 1975, I had breast cancer. At that time, doctors treated it aggressively. I had a radical mastectomy, and was put on powerful chemotherapy drugs for nine months. In the 1970s and 1980s, adjuvant chemotherapy was just beginning to play a major role in treating cancer patients. Massive doses of steroids and other toxic drugs were developed and tried on patients like me.

Research had shown that often cancer metastasizes because all of the cancer cells were not eradicated initially. Adjuvant chemo was created to remedy this problem. But in 1975, this process was still in its infancy, and doses given were extremely high and powerful.

On the other hand, the chemo quite possible saved my life. I am one of the lucky ones because I am a breast cancer survivor of 41 years. That is something to celebrate.

It is ironic, however, that the very chemotherapy that helped save my life would have horrible long-term side effects. These side effects would leave me classified as disabled. What none of us knew in 1975 was that the powerful chemo being administered to me began a destructive process of bone deterioration – a sort of slow spinal collapse – which continues to this day.

Over time, this likely resulted in my developing osteoporosis, severe degenerative scoliosis and neuropathy, as well as needing to deal with severe chronic pain issues.

By 2006, just four years after retiring, my condition was worsening in spite of trying nearly every over-the-counter medication and treatment option out there. So I visited a pain management specialist. I simply could not bear the intense pain I experienced any longer.

The physician put me on a low dosage of an opiate-based pain medication, which actually brought me some relief. I was ecstatic! I have continued using pain medications since that time.

In 2013, when I needed to spend a lot more time in bed because my spinal condition continued to degenerate, my husband and I purchased the perfect over-bed table. This table became my new desk, and I began a new career in creative writing.

I love writing my short stories of the heart intended to encourage and inspire readers. I have been fortunate to have my writings published in magazines such as Mysterious Ways, Woman Alive and the Chicken Soup series of books. Yes, writing has given life back to me.

I even have a book coming out in a few months. “My Walk of Faith, Hope and Love” describes vividly my experience with breast cancer and how music helped me during this challenging time.

However, none of this writing could take place without my use of opiates. These pain medications allow me to work – to write – and for that I am so grateful. I know there are thousands of people like me. I ask you to remember that opiates can be extremely helpful. Used under the care of a pain specialist, they can give life back. They sure did that for me.

Kay Johnson-Gentile, Ph.D., is a creative writer, spiritual director and music therapist. She was named a Buffalo News Outstanding Citizen in 1977 for her work for the American Cancer Society.