Controlling Cancer Pain
While you may not be able to get rid of the pain entirely, working with your doctor can help you better manage it.

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Controlling Cancer Pain

Cancer doesn't always cause pain. But when it does, be sure to tell your doctor. By getting treated quickly, you may be better able to stay active, sleep better and ward off depression. Pain often is also easier to control if treated right away.

The cancer itself may cause the pain. For example, a tumor may press on nerves, organs or bones. Cancer treatments including surgery, chemotherapy or radiation can cause pain.

How is cancer pain measured?
Pain depends on the person. Tell your doctor about your pain and how severe it is. Doctors may use a pain rating scale of zero to 10. Zero represents no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine.

Your doctor may ask you to keep a pain journal. This is a record of what your pain is like, when it occurs and how well treatment works to relieve it. The pain scale and pain journal can help your doctor figure out how best to treat your pain.

How is cancer pain treated?
Your doctor may prescribe over-the-counter medications for mild to moderate pain. Those medications include aspirin, acetaminophen or another nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicine.

For moderate to severe pain or when pain lasts or increases, your doctor may prescribe an opioid, also called a narcotic.

Many pain medications can be taken by mouth. Others may be given through nasal sprays, shots, patches on your skin or through pumps that you control.

It's important to take the correct amount at the correct times to keep a constant level of the drug in your body. Talk with your doctor if your pain gets worse. Your doctor can adjust your pain medication for your needs.

Sometimes, the type of treatment for cancer pain is selected based on the cause of the pain. For example, if the pain is caused by an inflamed or irritated nerve, a drug that is especially designed to relieve nerve pain might be used. In the same way, pain caused by pressure of a tumor on a bone or nerve can often be quickly relieved by a relatively small amount of radiation therapy. 

What are the side effects to medicines taken for cancer pain?
The most common side effects of opioid pain medicine are nausea, sleepiness and constipation. You may also experience vomiting, difficulty in thinking clearly, breathing problems and loss of sexual function. Talk with your doctor to determine how best to manage them. Sleepiness and nausea usually improve after a few days.

The most common side effect from aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicine is an upset stomach. They may also affect the blood's ability to clot. They may irriate the stomach and cause bleeding.

Acetaminophen taken in usual doses rarely cause side effects. However, you may hurt your liver and kidneys if you take big doses daily for a long time or if you take your usual dose with alcohol.

Are there other ways to treat cancer pain?
There are a wide variety of other treatments you may want to explore. Some people find that these integrative or complementary treatments reduce their pain and help them cope with their stress that may come with a cancer diagnosis. Ask your primary doctor for recommendations. As with all health care professionals, it's important to choose therapists and professionals who are licensed and trained in these specialized treatments.

Treatments you might find helpful in reducing your pain include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Relaxation
  • Deep breathing
  • Massage
  • Biofeedback
  • Hypnosis
  • Meditation

Don't let pain control you. Control it. While you may not always be able to get rid of the pain entirely, working with your doctor can help you better manage it.

By Susan G. Warner, Contributing Writer
Created on 02/11/2002
Updated on 09/10/2013
  • National Cancer Institute. Pain control: Support for people with cancer. Other ways to control pain.
  • American Cancer Society. Pain control: A guide for people with cancer and their families.
  • National Cancer Institute. Pain. Basic principles of cancer pain management.
  • American Cancer Society. Pain control: What do I need to know about pain control?
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