Pain may be caused by the cancer itself, by the treatment, or by the side effects of the treatment. Most pain experts agree that 90-95% of all cancer-related pain CAN be successfully treated. Patients and health care professionals can work as a team to manage pain and discomfort.

Many patients have questions about managing pain, such as those below:

I’ve heard that pain is a part of cancer. Should I just try to learn to live with it?

Living with pain decreases your overall quality of life. It may make you depressed or less active. You may have trouble sleeping or working or spending time with family and friends. You may wrongly equate your pain with advancing cancer and begin to feel hopeless. Because you need all of your energy to get through your cancer treatments, you should seek out ways to reduce or relieve your cancer pain.

Will I experience pain during the course of my treatment?

Many cancer survivors will go through treatment without ever having pain. Others may have pain that is related to the tumor itself, surgery to remove the tumor, or from the tumor’s effect on another part of the body, such as a bone or pressure on a nerve.

Describing Pain

What will the doctor or my health team need to know about my pain?

They will need to know where your pain is, how much pain you feel, and what your pain feels like. They also will want to know what helps the pain and, if you are already being treated for the pain, how well the treatment is working.

Isn’t pain hard to describe to someone else?

Yes, pain is hard to describe, but you are the only one who can tell how much pain you are in, and you are the only one who can best help your doctor or nurse understand your need for pain control. You can describe your pain in many ways. You can use a number scale from 0 to 10, with 10 meaning the worst pain.

You also can use words to describe your pain (for example, mild, moderate, or severe, or the worst pain you have ever felt). Try to think of words to describe the pain you are feeling. Is it a tingling, a stabbing pain, an ache, or a throb? Write down the words that describe your pain so you will remember to use them when you see your doctor.

Pain Medicines

What types of medicine are available to relieve my pain?

The type of pain reliever prescribed depends on the type and cause of pain. Your doctor will determine which medication is likely to best work to control your pain. Pain that changes during the day may respond best to oral pain relievers. Constant pain responds well to pain medicines that are given in a steady dose, such as a slow-release tablet or a skin patch that lasts up to three days. For chronic pain, medications need to be taken at regular time intervals, both day and night.

Are there any risks in taking the medicine you are prescribing?

You should not take any over-the-counter medicines, herbs, or health supplements without telling your physician. Some medicines interact with each other or with non-prescription medications or herbs. If you have more than one doctor who prescribes medicine for you, each doctor should be aware of all the medications, herbs, or supplements that you are taking. It is important that your physician know if you plan to consume alcohol, including beer or wine, while taking any medicines prescribed for you. Alcohol interacts with many medications. Your physician will advise you whether it is safe to drive or operate machinery when taking your medication.

What are the side effects of these medicines and can you lessen or control the side effects?

Some of the common side effects of pain medication are drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, and constipation.  Your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist can advise you of the side effects for the medications prescribed for you and ways to reduce or control these side effects.

Are there things I can do to relieve my pain without taking medicine?

Pain is most often treated with medicine, but other treatments may be added to your treatment plan if needed.  Sometimes radiation therapy is used for pain control.  Treatment may include procedures such as nerve blocks or surgery.  Other types of treatment include rest, hot or cold packs, massage, guided imagery, acupressure, cutaneous stimulation (such as a TENS unit) or techniques such as biofeedback, relaxation therapy, music therapy, or hypnosis. Your doctor and nurse will recommend the pain control plan that works best for your pain.  If it is not successful, insist on trying other ways to control your pain.

Getting the Best Relief from Pain

The doctor said to take my pain medicine whether I had pain or not. Why shouldn’t I save them to use in case the pain gets worse later?

This is a mistake that many patients make. The main goal of pain relief is to get the pain under control and prevent it from coming back. This can best be done by taking your pain medicine as it is scheduled whether you have pain at that moment or not. Taking your medicine as prescribed allows each dose to become effective before the previous dose wears off. Taking pain medicine on a regular basis leads to better pain control. In fact, you may use a lower total dosage of medication than you would if you only took medicine when the pain comes back and is more severe.

If I take too much pain medicine, won’t I become used to it?

Your body may get used to a certain medication. This is called tolerance. If you develop tolerance to a medicine, the amount of medication can be changed or other medicines can be added. There are many different pain medicines and other techniques to choose from, so don’t put off using your medications to relieve your pain. If you do find that your pain medicines aren’t working as well as they did before, be sure to tell your doctor or nurse.

If I use pain medicine regularly for a long period of time, won’t I become addicted to it?

Many patients, family members, and health care professionals have needless fears of addiction related to taking pain medication. Studies show, however, that getting addicted to pain medicine is very rare. Taking medications for pain due to a disease is not the same as abuse of drugs.

What are the side effects of these medications and can you minimize or control the side effects?

Some of the common side effects of pain medication are drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, and constipation. Your physician, nurse, or pharmacist can advise you of the specific side effects for the medications prescribed and ways to minimize or control these side effects.

If Pain Remains a Problem

What if my pain is not controlled by the medication you have prescribed?

It is important to keep your doctor advised of changes in your level of pain. The dosage of the medicine you are taking may need to be increased if your body develops a tolerance to the medication. Your physician also may change the type of medicine or the way you take it in to control your pain better.

Do you have special training in pain management?

Pain management is a subspecialty of medicine that uses a multidisciplinary approach to the management of pain. Physicians who work in hospice care, anesthesiologists, surgeons, and internists may choose to specialize in the treatment of patients with pain. If your doctor is not a specialist in pain management, ask for a referral to a pain management clinic or to a pain management specialist.


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