Text Size: A | A | A
Home > Living with cancer > Managing pain

Managing pain

Conquer pain and improve the quality of your life.

Pain doesn’t have to go hand in hand with cancer. Many people with early stage tumors feel little, if any, pain. And according to the American Cancer Society, 90% of people who experience cancer pain are able to find relief.

Today, many large hospitals and specialized facilities have pain clinics devoted exclusively to helping people with cancer feel better. Even if yours doesn’t, your doctors should suggest a number of alternatives to help you manage any pain you might experience. If your doctor isn’t addressing your discomfort, ask to be referred to a pain specialist.

Understanding pain

In medical terms, pain is any experience that is unpleasant to the mind and senses. Pain can be acute or chronic. Acute pain is brief and sharp, while chronic pain lasts longer and may feel duller. People with cancer might feel both acute and chronic pain at different times — and both are treatable.

Cancer-related pain is often caused by the tumor itself, which may be pressing on nerves or organs. Pain can also be a side effect of some conventional treatments. It’s important to keep in mind that increased pain is not necessarily a sign that the cancer is getting worse.

If you notice any pain, you should discuss it immediately with your doctors. Don’t worry about being a complainer or wasting the doctor’s time. Your quality of life is important, and there is no benefit to suffering stoically. In fact, if your pain goes untreated, you are less likely to complete your therapy.

Sometimes symptoms like agitation, anger, and stress can actually be signs of untreated pain. Even if your discomfort doesn’t seem to be physical, it’s worth consulting a pain specialist.

Natural Relief

Many complementary therapies can help alleviate pain. Because muscular tension and stress can intensify pain, achieving a state of deep relaxation through meditation, visualization, or prayer can bring comfort and a sense of well-being. Acupuncture, massage, and other therapies stimulate the release of endorphins, which are the body’s own painkillers.

While natural therapies may not be enough to eliminate all pain, they may reduce the need for analgesics.

Acupuncture. According to studies endorsed by the National Institutes of Health, acupuncture relieves pain after surgery and nausea associated with chemotherapy.

Distraction. Focusing your mind away from pain — on a friend, a book, or a favorite movie — can help you feel more comfortable.

Hypnosis and relaxation, meditation, and visualization. A calm, focused mind can help you manage pain naturally. Talk to a social worker or mind-body therapist to learn self-hypnosis techniques, which have been proven effective at alleviating discomfort.

Massage, heat, and cold therapy. Stimulating the skin with massage, heating pads, or ice packs can provide relief.

Prayer and meditation. Prayer may counter stress and promote peace of mind. In fact, for some people, prayer or meditation may relieve pain.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). People suffering from acute pain may benefit from TENS, which sends electrical impulses to the affected part of the body.

How your doctor can help

You should work together with your doctor to determine the cause of your pain and find the right treatment. It’s a good idea to keep a journal, noting when you feel pain, how bad it is, and how long it lasts. Keep track of any activities that worsen the pain, as well as those that help you feel better.

Here are some of the approaches your doctor or pain specialist may take:

  1. Conventional treatment. Chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery can shrink or eliminate a tumor, relieving pain caused directly by cancer.

  2. Medications. Drugs known as analgesics alleviate pain for nearly 90% of people with cancer. These range from mild drugs like Tylenol® to stronger prescriptions like morphine. While analgesics can be effective, you may initially feel drowsy. If this continues more than a few days or you have trouble functioning, talk to your doctor about lowering your dose and controlling pain through other means, such as complementary therapies.

  3. Nerve surgery. A surgeon can inject pain medicine into a nerve to block pain, or cut pain nerves in a particular area of the body.