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Cancer Pain

Pain Conditions We Treat

Cancer pain may be caused by cancer or by medical procedures used to diagnose or treat the cancer, like radiation or surgery.

There are many ways to treat cancer pain. Tell your doctor about your pain. Getting it treated can improve your quality of life at every stage of the disease.

Cancer pain can be controlled in almost every case. You may not be pain-free, but the pain can usually be kept at a level you can bear.

What is cancer pain?

Cancer pain may be caused by the cancer or by the treatments and tests used. The pain may make it hard for you to do your normal activities, such as sleeping or eating. Over time, cancer pain can cause appetite and sleep problems, isolation, and depression.

But most cancer pain can be managed with medicines and other methods. This may not mean that you have no pain but that it stays at a level that you can bear. Treating your pain will make you feel better. You will be more active, eat and sleep better, and enjoy your family and friends.

What can cause cancer pain?

Cancer pain may be caused by the cancer or by the treatments and tests used. The kind of pain may vary depending on the cause. The first step in managing cancer pain is understanding the cause.

Pain from the cancer itself can happen when:

  • A tumor presses on bones, nerves, or organs.
  • A tumor presses on the spinal cord, causing pain in the back, legs, or neck.
  • A tumor causes organs to swell or be blocked. For example, a tumor can cause a bowel obstruction.
  • Cancer cells spread to the bone and destroy it.

Treatments such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy may also cause pain. Cancer treatments have to be strong. As a result, they often cause pain and other side effects. Some medical tests, such as bone marrow aspiration, may cause pain too.

How is cancer pain treated?

There are many ways to treat cancer pain. You may need different combinations of treatments to get the best results.

Pain medicines.

Pain control often starts with medicine. Both prescription and over-the-counter medicines may be used. Your doctor may suggest different drugs, different combinations, or different doses as your pain changes.

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers include acetaminophen and anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen.
  • There are many prescription options. Examples include steroid medicines and opioid pain relievers.

Treatments other than medicines.

You may have other options when medicines are not enough to relieve your pain. These include:

  • Treatments for painful tumors, such as surgery, chemotherapy, or hormone therapy.
  • Treatments for nerve pain, such as surgery or nerve blocks.

Nonmedical treatments.

There are other treatments that can help you manage cancer pain. They are often used along with medicines or other medical treatments.

Some examples include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Complementary therapies, such as acupuncture and meditation.

Discuss the pros and cons of these treatments with your doctor before you try them.

Home treatments.

Home treatments may reduce cancer pain and help you feel better. Talk to your doctor about any home treatments you want to try.

Things you can try at home to relieve cancer pain include:

  • Heat and cold packs.
  • Gentle massage.
  • Distraction.
How can you manage cancer pain?

Your doctor needs all the information you can give about what your pain feels like. It often helps to write things down in a pain diary.

  • Write down when your pain starts, what it feels like, and how long it lasts. Use words like dull, aching, sharp, shooting, throbbing, or burning.
  • Note changes in your pain. Is it constant, or does it come and go? Do you have more than one kind of pain? How long does it last?
  • Rate your pain on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain you can imagine.
  • Write exactly where you feel pain. You can use a drawing. Say whether the pain is just in that one place or several places at once. Or tell your doctor if it travels from one place to another.
  • Write down what makes your pain better or worse. Note when you used a treatment, how well it worked, and any side effects.

If you and your doctor are not able to control your pain, ask about seeing a pain specialist. A pain specialist is a health professional who focuses on treating resistant pain.

Talk to your doctor if you are having problems with depression. Treating depression can make it easier to manage your cancer pain.