Managing Cancer Pain for Better Quality of Life

Typically, when someone expresses they are having pain, it means they are hurting somewhere. However, this can also mean they just can’t get comfortable, and they could be feeling bad in general, not in any one place. Sometimes, it can be difficult for patients to talk about their pain with others, but it is very important to discuss this with your cancer treatment team or loved ones, so you may get the help and support you need. Keep in mind, that if someone is sad, anxious, or depressed, the pain may feel worse. 

Having cancer does not always mean there is pain. If someone does have pain, it can be managed if discussed with their healthcare team. There are different medications, as well as non-drug methods that can help ease or eliminate pain associated with cancer.

What Causes Pain for People with Cancer?

Cancer itself can cause pain and varies depending on the type of cancer, the patient, and how severe the cancer is. People with advanced cancer are more likely to have pain. Cancer surgery, treatments, or tests can also cause pain. Below is more information on each of these causes of cancer pain:

  • Cancer – Pain from cancer can be caused by a tumor pressing on nerves, bones, or organs. When a tumor spreads to the spine, it can press on the nerves of the spinal cord, called spinal cord compression. This condition must be treated right away to prevent the patient from losing control of the bladder, or the bowel from being paralyzed. Bone pain can happen when cancer starts or spreads to the bones; treatment typically is the solution to bone pain in this case
  • Surgical Pain – Surgery is often part or all of a treatment plan for cancers that grow solid tumors. Depending on the kind of surgery, some amount of pain is usually expected and can last from several days to weeks. Phantom pain is also an effect of surgery; if you’ve had an extremity or breast surgically removed, you may still experience pain or other unpleasant feelings that seem to come from the absent body part
  • Side Effects of Chemotherapy and Radiation Treatments – Some treatment side effects cause pain, and may even make people stop treatment if the pain is not managed. Certain types of chemotherapy can cause nerve damage, which can create issues such as burning, tingling, numbness, weakness, clumsiness, trouble walking, or unusual sensations in the hands, arms, legs, and/or feet
  • Pain from Procedures and Testing – Some tests to diagnose and check the status of cancer during treatment can be painful. Any pain you have during or after these procedures can be treated 

Types of Cancer Pain

People with cancer who have pain may experience their pain changing throughout the day and it may be different from day to day. Pain may be referred to by doctors as acute, chronic, or breakthrough.

Acute Pain

This type of pain is usually severe, comes on quickly, and lasts a fairly short amount of time. This pain is usually caused by some type of injury and will go away as the injury heals

Chronic Pain

Chronic, or persistent pain can come on quickly or slowly and ranges from mild to severe. This type of pain lasts for long periods; pain is considered chronic if it lasts longer than 3 months. This pain won’t go away unless its underlying cause is treated, however, it can be controlled by medications through a pain management plan. This can be from cancer itself, or treatments used to battle cancer. 

Breakthrough Pain

This is a flare of pain that might happen even if one is taking pain medication regularly for chronic pain. It “breaks through” the pain relief you get from regular pain medication and usually cannot be predicted. It’s very important to manage this type of pain. 

Cancer Pain Management

There are many things one can do to help manage their cancer pain. Doctors and cancer care teams may prescribe opioids for patients having increasing or severe pain from their cancer or treatment. Opioids must be prescribed and used with great care because:

  • Some pain medications may interfere with other medications
  • Some of these medications affect people differently so some may not be given to adults, young children, or certain people being treated for other medical issues
  • The concern for what is being called an “opioid pandemic”. However, it’s important to remember that opioids can be safely prescribed and used to help control cancer pain

Opioids are not the only drug that can be used to help with cancer pain. There are also a lot of other medical treatments that can be used to help. Below are a few of the other treatments available:

  • Surgery – Sometimes, in severe cases, nerves can be surgically cut to block pain signals from getting to the brain. Typically this is chosen when other methods of pain relief are explored and are not working
  • Nerve Block – A procedure where a numbing medication combined with a steroid is injected into or around a nerve to block pain; this pain is relieved for some time before coming back
  • Spinal Injection – Low doses of pain medication may be injected into the fluid around the spine. This may be delivered via a pump and tube placed in the area that can deliver this medication when warranted
  • Nerve Stimulation – There are several types of nerve stimulation treatments that can help with cancer-related pain
  • Treatments to Shrink a Tumor – Sometimes, even when treatment cannot cure cancer, it can shrink the size of a tumor that may be pressing on nerves and organs that are causing cancer pain. Cancer treatments like chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or radiation may be used in this way

If someone has pain from cancer that has spread or other long-term cancer pain, it can be exhausting. This type of pain can keep someone from doing things that they want or need to do and although cancer pain cannot always be fully relieved, there are ways to make it less severe and increase the quality of life as mentioned in this blog.