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Side Effects

Pain in People with Cancer

Having cancer does not always mean that you will have pain. But if you do, it can and should be treated. Any type of pain, not just cancer pain, can affect all parts of a person's life. Some days it may be better or worse than others.

Pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. Only you know if and when you have pain and how it feels. Pain can feel different at different times. It can be in one place or in several places of your body. People describe pain as:

  • Sharp
  • Dull
  • Burning
  • Throbbing
  • Tingling
  • Muscle tightness or stiffness

People with cancer who have pain may notice that their pain changes throughout the day, and that it may be different from day to day.  It could be that some of the pain you’re feeling is caused by something other than cancer.

Try to keep track of your pain and its symptoms, and share them with your cancer care team. This will help them better understand your pain so they can figure out the best plan to help manage it.

 Causes of cancer pain

The most common cancer-related causes of pain are:

  • Tumors (growing and pushing on normal parts of the body)
  • Spinal cord compression
  • Bone pain
  • Cancer surgery
  • Phantom pain (pain that you feel in a body part that is no longer there)
  • Side effects of chemotherapy and radiation
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Procedures and testing

Types of cancer pain

Your cancer care team may not call your pain, “cancer pain”. You may hear them say your pain is acute, chronic, or breakthrough

Acute pain

Acute pain is usually severe, comes on quickly, and lasts a shorter time than other pain types. It’s most often a sign that the body has been injured in some way. This pain, in general, goes away as the injury heals.

Chronic pain

Chronic pain can come on quickly or slowly and can be mild to severe. Chronic pain lasts for long periods of time. Pain is chronic if it lasts longer than 3 months. Chronic pain can disrupt your life and normal activities if it’s not managed well.

Chronic pain doesn’t go away unless the cause can be treated. But it can often be lessened or controlled by taking pain medicines on a regular schedule. Sometimes this is called taking pain medicines "around the clock."

Breakthrough pain

Breakthrough pain is an episode of pain that happens even though you are taking pain medicine on a regular schedule.

Breakthrough pain often has the same causes as chronic pain. Some people have breakthrough pain during a certain activity, like walking or putting on clothes. For others, it happens suddenly for no clear reason.

Breakthrough pain is not controlled by regular doses of pain medicines. It is usually treated with an extra dose of pain medicine or a different kind of medicine.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Mercadante S. Once again... breakthrough cancer pain: an updated overview. J Anesth Analg Crit Care .2023;3(1):23. Accessed November 16, 2023 at

National Cancer Care Center Network (NCCN). Adult Cancer Pain. Version 2.2023. Accessed November 16, 2023.

National Cancer Institute (NCI). Cancer Pain (PDQ®) – Patient Version. 2023. Accessed November 20, 2023.

Last Revised: March 29, 2024

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