Terminal Illness & Substance Abuse

Path in the woods representing terminal illness

Unless you have a loved one or friend who has died because of a terminal illness, it must be difficult to imagine the thoughts and feelings associated with hearing the words, “there is no cure for this.” For some people, this news may cause them to make a bucket list and begin setting things in order before they die.

For others, the disappointment and pain may lead them to turn toward the abuse of drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain. For those who experience severe pain in the course of the illness, it is easy to imagine the temptation to misuse pain medication to relieve emotional suffering would be even more powerful.

Addiction has been called “ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking” [1] or, alternatively, “chemical coping.” [2] Many people may turn to drugs as they seek to deal with the end of life realities that come with a terminal illness.

In one study of patients admitted to the hospital palliative care program that provided universal health care, the rate of alcoholism was 27% —significantly higher than the rate among the general public, which sits at 12.7%. [3] Additionally, some professionals believe that many patients admitted for end-of-life care are underdiagnosed for substance abuse problems, which could compromise their care.

For those in recovery from alcohol or drug use, hearing the news that they have an incurable condition can increase the chances of a relapse. Those who face a terminal disease may deal with many emotions, including denial, fear, anger, regret, and sadness.

Sad man on a hill struggling with terminal illnessTerminally ill individuals may also wrestle with existential questions about meaning, purpose, and life after death. For those in this challenging situation, tough choices will have to be made that will determine the quality of the end of life.

John Eggers, an attorney from California, was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme—an extremely aggressive, malignant brain tumor. He was also misusing opioids for back pain to deal with his feelings of anxiety and depression related to his diagnosis.

After getting to a “really dark place,” Eggers chose to seek treatment so that he could live the end of his life pain-free and check off items on his bucket list, including meeting Joe Biden, skydiving, and traveling to Europe. Eggers said, “I realized that my life span is very short, and that’s okay. That’s acceptable to me,’ he said. ‘What’s not acceptable is wasting what time I do have on drugs and opiates.” [4]


1. Stevens, J. E. (2017, October 2). Addiction doc says: It’s not the drugs. It’s the ACEs…adverse childhood experiences. Retrieved May 30, 2020, from https://acestoohigh.com/2017/05/02/addiction-doc-says-stop-chasing-the-drug-focus-on-aces-people-can-recover/

2. Bruera, E. (1998, May 1). Substance Abuse Issues in Cancer Patients: Retrieved May 30, 2020, from https://www.cancernetwork.com/palliative-and-supportive-care/substance-abuse-issues-cancer-patients

3. Ingraham, C. (2017, August 11). One in eight American adults is an alcoholic, study says. Retrieved May 30, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/08/11/study-one-in-eight-american-adults-are-alcoholics/

4. Warren, L. (2014, May 14). Terminally-ill attorney John Eggers goes to rehab to kick painkillers addiction so he can die drug free. Retrieved May 30, 2020, from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2628153/Terminally-ill-attorney-48-goes-rehab-kick-addiction-painkillers-die-drug-free.html

About the Authors:

Travis StewartTravis Stewart, LPC has been mentoring others since 1992 and became a Licensed Professional Counselor in 2005. His counseling approach is relational and creative, helping people understand their story while also building hope for the future. Travis has experience with a wide variety of issues which might lead people to seek out professional counseling help. This includes a special interest in helping those with compulsive and addictive behaviors such as internet and screen addiction, eating disorders, anxiety, and perfectionism. Travis’ website is wtravisstewart.com

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed and Approved by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on June 25, 2020
Published June 25, 2020, on AddictionHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.