Cancer Pain Symptoms

Understanding your cancer pain symptoms

Cancer can be painful. In fact, cancer pain is a very common symptom of cancer. About half of all cancer patients have cancer pain while undergoing active treatment for cancer.1

Your cancer pain symptoms depend on several factors:

  • the stage of your cancer
  • type of cancer
  • location of the cancer
  • type of cancer treatments you’re undergoing
  • what kind of damage the cancer is causing

All of these things can influence how you experience pain in your body with cancer.

Because there are so many types of cancer, cancer pain symptoms aren’t the same for everyone.
The pain can range from mild to severe. Some days it can be worse, while other days you might feel fine.

It may also be more difficult to do everyday activities with cancer pain, and it can take an emotional toll on you. It’s not uncommon for people with cancer pain to experience stress, anxiety, and depression. This can affect your self-esteem, your work, and your relationships.

The Various Types of Cancer Pain and Their Symptoms
There are several types of cancer pain. Each type of pain has its own set of symptoms.

  • Acute pain typically comes on suddenly and is sometimes sharp, but it only lasts a short period of time.
  • Chronic pain is persistent pain, often regardless of the type of cancer treatments you have. This type of pain is sometimes called background pain. Although it’s common, chronic cancer pain can be successfully treated in about 95% of people using medications and other cancer pain treatments.2
  • Neuropathic pain may occur if cancer treatment damages nerves. This type of pain is often sharp, shooting, and burning. The cancer itself can cause neuropathic pain, too.
  • Phantom pain is a feeling that you still have pain coming from an area of your body that has been removed because of surgery. A tingling sensation and itching are common symptoms of phantom pain.
  • Breakthrough pain is an intense increase in pain (called flares) that occurs without warning—even if you’re taking medications to control your cancer pain. It’s called “breakthrough pain” because it can “break through” the pain medications you’re taking. This type of pain is usually unpredictable and happens frequently. It typically lasts for about 30 minutes each episode and is often sharp and radiating.3 Episodes can be triggered by a specific activity (eg, sneezing). Researchers say that up to two-thirds of people who have cancer pain also experience breakthrough pain, often several times a day.3

In addition to these cancer pain symptoms, you may also experience:

  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • inflammation
  • nausea
  • stiffness (due to periods of being inactive)
  • weakness

It’s common to have a combination of the different types of cancer pain and symptoms, but you don’t have to accept the pain: You have several options for dealing with it.

The most important thing you can do when you have cancer is to listen to your body. Pay attention to all of your symptoms. If you have new cancer pain symptoms, talk to your doctor right away.


This article was updated with the assistance of Dr. Shealy in October 2018.

Updated on: 04/03/19
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Cancer Pain Treatments