Cancer Pain Overview

With cancer treatment success comes a down side—more pain and disability.

According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer pain is frequently undertreated.1 More than 5 million cancer survivors (about 35%) in the United States experience chronic pain, according to a study by Mount Sinai researchers. If you’re battling cancer and experiencing pain, your doctor can develop a treatment plan to help you try to manage cancer pain. Often, the missing element is the ongoing patient-physician communication that improves cancer pain treatment.

What's Causing the Cancer Pain?
Cancer treatment can be painful—sometimes more distressing than the cancer itself. For some people, the initial days of diagnosing cancer can produce more pain than some of the treatments that occur in subsequent weeks. Blood tests, biopsies, and other cancer tests can be uncomfortable.

Chemotherapy may cause a common type of chronic cancer pain. It can cause a deep, constant throbbing that can even have a burning sensation called neuropathy. Approximately 30 to 40% of all cancer patients experience chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, according to the Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy. 

However, the American cancer care community has made progress in reducing this pain. The chemotherapy of today is generally less painful, and the medications that block the pain are more effective.

Cancer surgery can be painful for some cancer patients, but typically when you wake up from surgery, you won't feel much pain. Your surgeon will have done you the service of temporarily sedating the nerves around the operated area. However, as the sedation wears off, the nerves start to send pain messages.

Fortunately, there are powerful pain medications, such as opioids, that can fight your pain through the first days and hours of recovery. In most cases, patients transition from the powerful opioids to something like ibuprofen or acetaminophen in a few days. If you have pain after surgery, tell your nurses and doctor. Telling them will help you avoid being undertreated.

The cancer itself can be painful. When cancer cells are attacking a body part, the nerves in that area are keenly aware, and they let your brain know.

Read more about cancer pain causes.

Report Your Cancer Pain to Your Doctor
Doctors, hospitals, and clinics have pain management programs that can relieve your pain, but you need to speak up about their pain. You need to tell your doctor and other healthcare professionals:

  • the location of your pain
  • how intense your pain is
  • what makes it worse
  • what makes it better
  • your goal for pain control

Many patients suffer needlessly because they assume their doctor knows what they are feeling, and he or she has done all they can for the pain. While doctors, nurses, and other professionals regularly ask about cancer pain, patients often fail to provide detailed answers that keep pain from being undertreated. Tell your doctor about your cancer pain symptoms so he or she can help you manage your cancer pain.

Updated on: 07/09/19
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Cancer Pain Symptoms