Guide to Controlling Cancer Pain

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Facts about cancer pain treatment

Cancer pain can almost always be relieved or lessened.

There are many medicines and methods that can be used to control cancer pain. You should expect your cancer care team to work with you so that you can be as comfortable as possible. But even though a lot of progress has been made, some doctors and nurses don’t know the best ways to treat cancer pain.

If you’re in pain and your doctor has nothing more to offer, ask to see a pain specialist or have your doctor consult with a pain specialist. Pain specialists may be oncologists, anesthesiologists, neurologists, neurosurgeons, other doctors, nurses, or pharmacists. A pain control team may also include psychologists and social workers.

If you have trouble finding a pain specialist, contact a cancer center, a hospice, or the oncology department of your local hospital or medical center. They should be able to recommend someone to you.

Controlling your pain is part of your cancer treatment.

Your cancer care team wants and needs to hear about what works for your pain and what doesn’t. Knowing about the pain will help them know more about how the cancer and the treatment are affecting you. Talking about pain won’t distract your cancer care team from treating the cancer.

Keeping pain from starting and keeping it from getting worse are the best ways to control it.

Pain is best relieved when treated early. Don’t try to hold off as long as possible between doses of pain medicine. Pain may get worse if you wait. Then it may take longer for the medicine to work, or you may need larger doses.

You have a right to ask for pain relief.

Talking about your pain is not a sign of weakness. Not everyone feels pain in the same way. There’s no need to “tough it out” or be “brave.” In fact, as soon as you have any pain you should speak up. Remember, it’s easier to control pain right when it starts rather than waiting until it becomes severe.

People who take cancer pain medicines the way the cancer care team tells them to rarely become addicted to them.

Addiction is a common fear of people taking pain medicine. Such fear may keep you from taking the medicine. Or it may cause family members to encourage you to hold off as long as you can between doses.

Addiction is defined as uncontrollable drug craving, seeking, and continued use. When opioids (also known as narcotics) – the strongest pain relievers available – are taken for pain, they rarely cause addiction as defined here. When you’re ready to stop taking opioids, the doctor will lower the amount of medicine you’re taking over a few days or weeks. By the time you stop using it completely, your body has had time to adjust. Talk to your cancer care team about how to take pain medicines safely and about any concerns you have about addiction.

Most people do not get “high” or lose control when they take cancer pain medicines the way they’re told to.

Some pain medicines can cause you to feel sleepy when you first start taking them. This feeling usually goes away within a few days. Sometimes you become drowsy because now that the pain is under control, you’re able to get the much-needed sleep you missed when you were in pain. Sometimes, people get dizzy or feel confused when they take pain medicines. Tell your cancer care team if this happens to you. Changing your dose or type of medicine can often solve these problems.

Side effects from pain medicines can be managed and often prevented.

Some pain medicines can cause nausea and vomiting, itching, constipation, or drowsiness. A few can cause liver or kidney damage. (We talk about side effects in more detail in the sections on the different types of pain medicines commonly used.) Your cancer care team can help you manage these side effects. Some of these problems go away after a few days of taking the medicine. Many side effects can be managed by changing the medicine, the dose, or the times when the medicine is taken. Others, like constipation, can often be prevented with stool softeners and other measures.

Your body does not become immune to pain medicine.

Pain should be treated early, and stronger medicines should not be saved for later. It’s important to take whatever medicine is needed when it’s needed. Your body may get used to the medicine you’re taking, so over time the medicine may not relieve the pain as well as it once did. This is called tolerance. Tolerance is seldom a problem with cancer pain treatment because your cancer care team can increase the amount of medicine you’re taking or add other medicines. Some people are alarmed by this because they think it means they’re addicted, but it’s not the same thing. It only means that your body has learned to adjust to the drug over time.

    When pain is not relieved, you may feel:

    • Tired
    • Depressed
    • Angry
    • Worried
    • Lonely
    • Stressed

    When cancer pain is relieved, you’re more able to:

    • Enjoy being active.
    • Sleep better.
    • Enjoy family and friends.
    • Eat better.
    • Enjoy sexual intimacy.
    • Prevent depression.

Last Medical Review: 07/15/2015
Last Revised: 07/15/2015