Cancer Pain Overview
Cancer does not always cause pain, but its treatments can cause pain.
Some pain can prevent you from working, sleeping, eating, or participating in daily activities. The pain level you experience depends on your pain tolerance, the type and stage of cancer, and the presence of other health issues. Cancer and its treatment can cause irritability, frustration, anger, and sadness. Cancer pain may feel dull, achy, sharp, or burning. Pain can be constant, intermittent, mild, severe, or moderate. Stopping the spread of cancer can prevent future pain and reduce your overall symptoms. Proactive medical treatment is vital for cancer patients, so talk to your doctor immediately when you notice new symptoms or pain worsens.
Most cancer pain is caused by a tumor pressing on your bones, nerves, or other organs in your body. Your doctor will discuss any side effects of your medication or treatment that may cause symptoms. Common symptoms of cancer-related pain include:
- Pain in the areas affected by cancer
- Nerve pain: burning, shooting, tingling, or feeling like something is crawling under your skin
- Bone pain: aching, dull, or throbbing pain in your bones
- Soft Tissue pain: sharp, cramping, aching, or throbbing pain in muscles or organs
Some cancer pain treatment options may contribute to your overall pain levels, while others may reduce them. Palliative treatments can help relieve the side effects of your treatments and your cancer symptoms.
- Bone marrow transplant
- Chemotherapy of other radiation therapy
- Clinical trials: You may be eligible to participate in cancer clinical trials that investigate new ways to treat cancer.
- Hormone therapy or immunotherapy
- Massage therapy
Cancer Pain Management:
- Changing positions to avoid stiffness or bedsores
- Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
- Heat or cold therapy
- Medication: Over-the-counter or prescription medications may relieve your pain, and your doctor may prescribe opioids to treat moderate to severe pain.
- Nerve blocks: Nerve blocks can stop pain signals from reaching the brain, which reduces sensations of pain.
- Relaxation techniques and meditation
The cancer diagnosis process can be arduous, as your doctor must determine whether the pain you feel stems from cancer or some other cause. Your doctor may order:
- Lab test: blood, urine, or other bodily fluids
- Imaging tests: CT scan, MRI, nuclear scan, bone scan, PET scan, ultrasound, or X-rays
Once your doctor has diagnosed you with cancer, you should keep a symptom diary to track what symptoms are typical for you. This can help you and your doctor know when to begin testing again or when your stage of cancer has changed.
Types of Cancer Pain
Phantom or referred
Pain can be acute or chronic and may cause pain in your:
- Nerves: caused by pressure on nerves or spinal cord
- Bones: caused by damaged bone tissue
- Soft tissue: pain from an organ or muscle
Pain can also be phantom or referred. Phantom pain refers to the pain felt after a body part has been removed. This pain typically dissipates after a few months but can last for more than a year after your surgery. Referred pain is when you feel pain in a different location of your body than the section affected. For example, a swollen liver can cause pain in the right shoulder because it presses on nerves that end in the right shoulder.
Causes of Cancer Pain
- Surgery, treatments, or tests associated with diagnosing or treating your cancer
- Other conditions caused by cancer: spinal cord compression, peripheral neuropathy (PN), chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, mouth sores, radiation mucositis or other radiation injuries
Researchers are still identifying why phantom pain occurs and why it’s so common. Over half of cancer patients who have surgery to remove an arm or leg experience phantom pain. The most common cancers for men are prostate, lung, and colorectal cancer, while the most common cancers for women are breast, lung, and colorectal cancer.