Cancer survivor shares his story of Suboxone withdrawal

Since my story on Suboxone use in Portland was published Tuesday, I fielded an interesting call from Craig Young, a 60-year-old carpenter from Presque Isle.

Young read the piece and was concerned — based on a comment therein that Mercy Hospital’s Recovery Center “has never had to admit somebody for Suboxone withdrawal” — that readers would take it to mean people stopping use of Suboxone do not experience withdrawal symptoms.

In fairness, that’s not what Dr. Mark Publicker, who delivered the comment in question, meant to suggest. At other times during our interview, Publicker told me that a retroactive two-year limit on prescriptions of buprenorphine, the opiate ingredient in the brand-name medicine Suboxone, would put patients who have been using the drug for two years or more to ward off addictions to more serious drugs like heroin into immediate withdrawal, and potentially drive those patients back to abusing worse opiates.

The retroactive two-year cap on the Suboxone, Publicker said, is being proposed as part of Gov. Paul LePage’s MaineCare overhaul plan (covered thoroughly here, here and here, with Portland angles here and here, and the most recent news here).

In a comment that didn’t make the final version of the article, Publicker said the following:

If it’s abruptly stopped, people will experience acute withdrawal. Every one of them will relapse — 100 percent.

So any lack of clarity on the subject of whether stopping Suboxone use will trigger withdrawal symptoms is my fault, not that of Dr. Publicker.

But Craig Young’s story is nonetheless worth retelling, as it offers a different take on the users of the drug than those that appeared in the story. Users of Suboxone in the story were discussed by all sources as folks taking the drug, at least at first, as a replacement drug to help get off of other drugs they’d been abusing.

Young said he was prescribed Suboxone to help get off of other drugs he’d been previously prescribed. In Young’s case, his addiction to Suboxone is entirely medical in nature.

He told a story of being diagnosed several years ago with stage 4 lymphoma, a crushing experience. As part of the otherwise comprehensive treatment, Young said he was prescribed opiates.

Then, a little more than two years ago, a doctor switched him over to Suboxone to move him away from the prescribed opiates used during his cancer treatments, which did successfully leave him cancer-free.

About three weeks ago, Young said he and his doctor tried to get him off of Suboxone use and put a punctuation mark on the whole cancer ordeal. Yet, over 21 days without Suboxone, Young said he was violently ill and was twice checked into the emergency room. He said if he faced any more time battling the torturous withdrawal sickness, he’d have no choice but to seek any kind of opiate he could get his hands on to make it stop.

Just this week, he said his doctor is relenting and putting him back on a smaller dose of Suboxone, and Young said he may need to stay on the drug for the rest of his life.


Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.