Having cancer does not mean that you
have to live with pain. Cancer and some of the treatments for it can cause
pain. But most people who have cancer are able to manage their pain well.1
- Cancer pain can almost always be controlled. Only you know
how you feel and how much pain you have. Tell your
health care team what your pain feels like and what works and does not
- Don't wait for pain to get bad. Your pain medicine will work
best if you use it when you first notice pain, before it becomes
- If you are taking pain medicine regularly for cancer pain, have a plan (and medicines on hand) for breakthrough pain. This is sudden and intense pain that can happen while you are already taking pain medicine.
- The risk of becoming addicted to pain medicines is
very small. Do not let this fear stop you from getting the pain relief you
- Managing your pain can mean treating other problems, too. Uncontrolled cancer pain can lead to anxiety, sleep problems, or depression.
How can I control the pain caused by cancer?
Keep track of your pain and your treatments
doctor needs all the information you can give about what your pain feels like.
Your doctor needs to know how your treatment is working or not working. It may
be easier to give your doctor information if you write it down. Use a daily
rate your pain. Write down what drugs you are taking
and how well they are working. Write down any other methods you are using to
control your pain.
Pay attention to the details of your pain so
you can tell your doctor. Is it burning? Throbbing? Steady? How long does it
last? Take your written information and your questions with you when you see
Use a calendar or a
pain control diary (What is a PDF document?) to keep track of your treatment. Write down how strong your
pain is and when it comes and goes. Most doctors use a "0 to 10" scale to
measure pain. On this scale, "0" means no pain and "10" means the worst
It is easy to get
confused about medicines when you are in pain and are looking for something to
help you feel better. You may have prescriptions from more than one doctor.
Keeping a written
medicine record (What is a PDF document?) can help you and your doctors work together.
Stay on top of your pain
Your pain will be harder
to control if you let it get worse before you take your medicine. Make the most
of your pain medicines by following these rules:
- Take them on time (by the clock).
- Do not skip a dose or wait until you think you need
- Be prepared for breakthrough pain. You may find that taking
your medicine works most of the time, but your pain flares up during extra
activity or even for no clear reason. This is called breakthrough pain. Your
doctor can give you a prescription for fast-acting medicines that you can take
for breakthrough pain.
- Ask one of your doctors to be your team
leader. It is best to have one doctor in charge of all your medicines. If more
than one doctor prescribes pain medicine, make sure they talk to each other
Manage the side effects
Pain medicines may cause
side effects. For example, opiate pain relievers may cause drowsiness,
constipation, nausea, and vomiting. Some anti-inflammatory drugs, including
aspirin, may cause stomach upset or bleeding. Before you start taking a drug,
ask your doctor about the possible side effects.
There are things
you can do to manage some side effects.
- Home treatment for nausea or vomiting
includes eating clear soups, mild foods, and liquids if you feel nauseated.
Watch for and treat early signs of dehydration. Older adults can quickly become
dehydrated from vomiting.
- Home treatment for constipation includes making sure that you drink enough fluids and include fruits, vegetables, and fiber in your diet each day. Do not use a laxative without first talking to your doctor.
Try complementary medicine
is the term for a wide variety of health care practices that may be used along
with or in place of standard medical treatment. If you use one or more of these
practices, you may be able to take a lower dose of pain medicines.
Most of these therapies have not been subjected to the same degree of
rigorous scientific testing for safety and effectiveness that standard medical
treatments must go through before they are approved in the United States. Be
sure to talk with your doctor about which therapies might be best for
- Biofeedback is a method of consciously
controlling a body function that is normally controlled unconsciously, such as
skin temperature, muscle tension, heart rate, or blood
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a type of counseling that can help you cope with pain by
modifying certain thought and behavior patterns.
- Relaxation exercises, music therapy, humor therapy, and prayer may reduce tension, help
you feel relaxed, and reduce stress.
- Guided imagery is a
series of thoughts and suggestions that direct your imagination toward a
relaxed, focused state. You can use an instructor, tapes, or scripts to guide
you through this process.
- Hypnosis is a state
of focused concentration that allows you to become less aware of your
- Exercise helps you keep your strength, flexibility, and mobility.
- Heat and cold treatments relieve sore
muscles and decrease pain.
- Massage helps reduce tension and pain, improves
circulation, and encourages relaxation.
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) uses electrical current delivered through
electrodes to the skin for pain relief.
- Acupuncture is
a form of traditional Chinese medicine. It is done by inserting very thin
needles into the skin at certain points on the body. Acupuncture may help relieve pain.2
- Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of
aroma-producing oils (essential oils) extracted from a plant's flowers, leaves,
stalks, bark, rind, or roots. These oils are mixed with another substance, such
as oil, alcohol, or lotion, and then applied to the skin, sprayed in the air,
- Healing touch is the conscious
influence of one person on another, without physical means of intervention, to
benefit the recipient's physical or emotional well-being.
- Meditation is the practice of focusing your attention
to alter your state of consciousness, usually directed toward feeling calm and
having a clear awareness about your life.
- Yoga is a meditation
program that includes exercises to help improve flexibility and breathing,
decrease stress, and maintain health.
For more information on these therapies, see the
Return to Cancer: Controlling Cancer Pain
National Cancer Institute (2013). Pain PDQ – Patient Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/pain/Patient.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (2013). Adult cancer pain. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology, version 1.2013. Available online: http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/pain.pdf.