Cancer does not always cause pain, but if you have recurring cancer or cancer that has spread, the chances of also suffering from cancer pain is higher. This type of pain can show itself in many different forms. The level of pain you may experience depends on a variety of factors, such as the type of cancer you have, how advanced it is, and your individual pain tolerance.
Understanding cancer pain requires knowing how cancer causes pain and what factors increase pain. It’s also important to know that cancer pain can be relieved. Communicating with your doctor about the pain you experience will help them guide your treatment plans and help you find the most relief.
Causes of Cancer Pain
Cancer pain can be caused by a variety of factors, not only the cancer itself. It can come from cancer treatment types or even conditions unrelated to your cancer. A pain doctor can create an effective treatment plan that eliminates all kinds of pain.
- A Tumor. Tumors growing in an organ may stretch the organ, which causes pain. Tumors that spread to bones or other organs can compress nerves or even damage them. Depending on where the tumor spreads or applies pressure, severe pain occurs if not treated.
- Bone Metastases. Cancer that spreads to the bone can be painful. Some medications can help control and reduce pain. Pain caused by bone metastases is treated locally, using radiation or bone-modifiying medication.
- Radiation. Radiation therapy can cause pain, but in some cases, will go away on its own. Radiation pain can develop months or years after therapy to areas such as the chest, lungs, or spinal cord.
- Surgery. Surgery is a common treatment for cancer, especially when they grow solid tumors. Pain is typical after surgery, but the amount of pain and how long the pain lasts depends on the kind of surgery that is performed.
- Neuropathic Pain. Neuropathic pain is typically severe and most commonly is caused by the pressure of a tumor on nerves. Chemotherapy medications and radiation therapy contribute to neuropathic pain caused by treatments.
When looking at your pain, your pain specialist will ask questions that relate to your pain. This helps them understand the kind of pain you experience and how different treatments will help manage your pain. They may ask questions like:
- Where does it hurt?
- How long does the pain last?
- What does the pain feel like?
- How much pain do you have, on a scale from 1 to 10?
This information, alongside your current treatment plan can help your physician determine the best course of action for reducing or eliminating your pain. The only way pain management needs of patients are met is if the patient and their physician keep an open line of communication.
Managing Cancer Pain
Cancer pain is manageable. It can be done a variety of ways, such as over-the-counter medicine and a number of non-medication methods.
Depending on how severe your pain is, your doctor may suggest acetaminophen or NSAIDs. These are typically used when the pain is mild. Older patients who take NSAIDs regularly need to be monitored by a pain specialist to prevent side effects.
If a patient suffers from severe cancer pain, there are a number of specialized treatments available. Pain specialists may recommend a nerve block, intrathecal pain therapy, physical therapy, acupuncture, or other therapies such as meditation and relaxation techniques.
Why Pain Goes Untreated
It’s not uncommon for patients with cancer to experience pain that goes untreated. Oftentimes, this is because they may not know their options to reduce pain. Living with pain is not normal, even for those suffering from cancer. Other patients may be reluctant to tell their physicians about their pain due to fear. This may stem from a fear of becoming addicted to pain medicine or that the medicine will eventually become ineffective and not help their pain.
Patients who do not discuss this pain with their doctors are doing themselves a disservice and may not even know it. Physicians do not treat pain unless they are aware of its severity and frequency.