Pancreatic Cancer

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Treating Pancreatic Cancer TOPICS

Pain control in pancreatic cancer

Pain in the abdomen or back can be a major problem for people with pancreatic cancer, especially the exocrine type. Treatment is available to help relieve this pain. If you are having any pain, please be sure to tell your doctor or nurse right away. Pain is easier to treat if the treatment is started when you first have it. You and your doctor or nurse can talk about the best ways to treat your pain. A pain specialist can also help develop a treatment plan.

There are proven ways to relieve pain from pancreatic cancer. For most patients, treatment with morphine or other similar drugs (opiates) will reduce the pain considerably. Many people are reluctant to take these drugs because they fear becoming addicted, but studies have shown that the risk of this is low if the patient takes the drug for pain as directed by the doctor.

Pain medicines work best when they are given regularly on a schedule. They do not work as well if they are only used when the pain becomes severe. Several long-acting forms of morphine and other opioid agents can be taken in pill form and only need be given once or twice a day. There is even a long acting form of the drug fentanyl that is applied as a patch every 3 days.

Common side effects of these drugs are nausea and sedation (feeling sleepy), which often get better over time. Constipation is a common side effect that will not get better and so needs to be treated. Most people on these drugs need to take laxatives daily.

Sometimes certain procedures may be needed to treat pain. For example, cutting or injecting alcohol into some of the nerves behind the pancreas that carry pain sensations can improve pain and allow you to use lower doses of opiate drugs. This can be done during surgery to remove the cancer, but it can also be done without surgery under the guidance of endoscopic ultrasound.

Treating the cancer with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy can also sometimes relieve pain by shrinking the size of the cancer.

For more information on pain, what can be done about it, see our document, Pain Control: A Guide for Those With Cancer and Their Loved Ones. A list of some other documents that can be helpful on this topic can be found in the “Additional resources for pancreatic cancer” section.

Last Medical Review: 01/28/2013
Last Revised: 02/05/2014