On the other hand, Stubblefield said, if a patient with nerve pain is also feeling depressed, it makes sense to try Cymbalta first.
There's also cost. Cymbalta is not yet available as a generic, and runs close to $200 a month. It is scheduled to lose patent protection at the end of 2013, so cheaper versions may become available.
Smith said there are still many questions to sort out: How well can patients tolerate Cymbalta over a longer term? Does the drug help nerve pain in patients who are still on chemo?
"We anticipate that it would help," Smith said. "But to what degree? Would it be enough to make a difference in their lives?"
As better treatments are helping more cancer patients survive, chronic peripheral neuropathy is emerging as one of the most difficult side effects of the treatments, said Dr. Sandra Swain, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Even minor actions, like picking up your keys, become difficult, Swain said. "It really affects your everyday living," she said.
Swain said the bottom line for patients is that "this drug may actually work, and it's something you can discuss with your doctor."
Still, Swain added, more research is needed -- not only into Cymbalta, but into other treatments for chemo-related pain.
Eli Lilly, the company that makes Cymbalta, provided the drug for the study. The work was funded by government and non-profit grants, and none of the researchers reported financial ties to Eli Lilly.
Learn more about chemo-related neuropathy from the American Cancer Society.
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