Is Death from Pain a Natural Death?

What is a natural death?Natural death, pain, Lynn R Webster, MD

That’s partly a judgment call, and it reveals our prejudice against pain patients.

Pain treatment and cancer treatment are two colors of the same spectrum.

They both serve the same purpose, and yet they’re perceived very differently. Pain treatment with an opioid is unacceptable to many advocating against the use of opioids for non-cancer pain. Cancer treatment, on the other hand, is valiant — whether it works or not, whether it hastens death or not.

People who take opioids for pain relief are suspect and unworthy. We insist that they prove they’re not abusing their drugs and, even then, the medication they need may not be prescribed. On the other hand, patients who use chemotherapy and radiation to beat back cancer are brave, and we cater to their needs and surround them with support.

Yet pain can be just as malignant as cancer. Pain robs a person of life with as much certainty as cancer can. In fact, pain can bleed a soul and consume a person’s energy to live.

So…is death from cancer a natural death? Is death from pain a natural death?

I suspect it depends on a person’s definition of “natural.” If chemotherapy contributes to a person’s death, we acknowledge the treatment effort as worthwhile, even though it’s failed to save the patient. It was a fight to make one’s life longer and better.

But, if a person in pain dies from an overdose, the death is associated with stigma, judgment, and prejudices, both socially and legally. The use of opioids and other drugs contributing to an overdose are demonized, and those who prescribe them are “bad” doctors, if not outright criminals.

Deaths from chemotherapy and overdoses are unwelcome, but they are on opposite ends of the sympathy spectrum.

Cancer treatment and pain medication are both used to seek relief from the intrusion of a disease. Yet, when they cause death, our perceptions of them are worlds apart. One death is an acceptable, or a “natural” death, and the other is a failure, or an “unnatural” death.

It doesn’t seem that we are using the same ethical standards to evaluate the same intentions of helping people with different diseases who are in need of help. That has to change.

We must always focus on the needs of patients regardless of their diagnosis.


Purchase my book The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us (available on Amazon) or read a free excerpt here.the painful truth, lynn webster, md, chronic pain

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Copyright 2016, Lynn Webster, MD



  1. flyingcars on March 11, 2016 at 5:17 am

    I fully agree with your observations Dr Webster, as an RN, and as a Chronic Pain Sufferer. I thank you Dr Webster for being our tireless advocate & just making sense!

    I have always wondered how the stigma of Chronic Pain was so powerful, that it can corrupt even the most intelligent & caring people.
    It’s sad to me that having the misfortune of Chronic Pain, one is seen as unworthy of basic care, respect, and treatment. Our every word is seen as manipulative dance to enchant Physicians into believing our myth of pain and suffering. It’s ridiculous, but it has been going on for pretty much ever.

    Every study I’ve ever read always shows how detrimental untreated or undertreated Chronic Pain & Chronic Insomnia are to those who have it, but yet it isn’t considered “serious” enough to be treated by very well educated Physicians or other Providers. Well, unless you have cancer.
    I don’t understand the disconnect between supposedly legitimate diseases – like CANCER, and any other disease with Chronic Pain as a main characteristic. We are routinely marginalized & discounted. Pt’s are ashamed to have chronic pain, as if it’s their fault! I think that’s exactly why more chronic pain sufferer’s don’t speak out, we’ve all been well trained to hide our pain, to never speak of it, ever.
    When reading on other blogs, “normals”(for lack of a better word) often can’t understand why we deserve respect or treatment! They say we are all addict’s, & my favorite “opioids don’t work longterm for pain”, and I always want to say “and how do you know?!” But I stop myself from engaging in pointless argument’s with ignorant self-centered types that can’t see beyond their own little world.

    I have lived long enough to have finally felt true IRONY in my own life – being a medical pariah! No one wants to help Chronic Pain Pt’s, even when they don’t have to treat the pain. Like just being associated with us is somehow contagious & detrimental!!

    I also feel that if I were to die, for whatever reason, my death would be counted as an “opioid related death” even if it was not. I would also not be suffering anymore and that’s a very good thing. It’s torture living like this, and it’s wrong that no one sees my life as valid or worthy. I’ve begged my Dr’s for help, for some empathy, but I receive blank stares, or a quick change of subject, and smiles. It’s sick.

    • Karla on March 16, 2016 at 3:16 pm

      Oh my goodness flyingcars! I couldn’t agree with you more! I am also a nurse who has chronic pain. I totally understand how you feel and what you go through. Stay strong, we are #painwarriors!
      Hugs to you…

  2. Zyp Czyk on March 11, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    It’s wonderful to hear a doctor say this: Pain treatment and cancer treatment are two colors of the same spectrum.

    Why has cancer pain always been the exception for restrictions on pain care? Though the cause might be different, pain causes suffering and opioids are equally effective.

    Why is an assertion of cancer pain, which is also invisible, always believed while all other reported pain is suspect?

    I’m not the only pain patient I know of who is close to wishing cancer on themselves, just to get effective opioid medications for our pain. We have the same unyielding constant pain that some cancer patients do, yet we are treated as addicts and denied relief while cancer patients are given opioids without restrictions.

    Why aren’t they worried about cancer patients becoming addicted to the opioids they are given and then being addicted after they recover from the cancer? I’ve not once heard this concern expressed, yet if opioids are as addictive as they say, all recovered cancer patients would be addicts.

  3. cathy carper on March 14, 2016 at 9:47 am

    Excellent article, and spot-on.

  4. […] Is Death from Pain a Natural Death via LynnRWebsterMD. What a sad but also interesting debate. […]

  5. Angel on March 26, 2016 at 9:31 pm

    Chronic pain is a disease in itself. Many MDs I know and respect hold the belief that chronic pain is caused when acute pain is left untreated and the result is awful. I once read a study that said every day with untreated chronic pain takes 3 additional days of treatment to compensate for the damage of the one day untreated. The barriers between a patient and their medication the stigma shame and fear should be considered torture. It amazes me that this attitude has become acceptable. It’s not medicine it’s not care it’s a war against hurting people and it’s shameful.

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