Developing a Pain Control Plan

Only you know how much pain you are in. Telling your cancer care team when you’re in pain is very important because pain is easier to treat when it first starts. Pain can also be an early warning sign of the side effects of your cancer treatment or some other problem. Together, you and your cancer care team can talk about how to best treat your pain. You have the right to be treated for cancer pain, and you should insist on it.

Learning about cancer pain

Here are some things that might help you talk about pain with your cancer care team.

Talking about cancer pain

The first step in developing a pain control plan is talking with your cancer care team about your pain. You need to be able to describe your pain to your family or friends, too. Ask them to help you talk to your cancer care team about your pain, if you’re too tired or in too much pain to talk to them yourself.

Using a rating scale

Using a pain scale is a helpful way to describe how much pain you’re feeling. To use the Pain Intensity Scale shown here, try to give your pain level a number from 0 to 10. If you have no pain, give it a 0. As the numbers get higher, they stand for pain that’s getting worse. A 10 means the worst pain you can imagine. For instance, you could say, “Right now, my pain is a 7 on a scale of 0 to 10.”












No pain










Worst pain

You can use the rating scale to describe:

  • How bad your pain is at its worst
  • What your pain is like most of the time
  • How bad your pain is at its best
  • How your pain changes with treatment

Tell your cancer care team and your family or friends:

  • Where you feel pain
  • What it feels like (for instance, sharp, dull, throbbing, gnawing, burning, shooting, steady)
  • How strong the pain is (using the 0 to 10 scale)
  • How long it lasts
  • What eases the pain
  • What makes the pain worse
  • How the pain affects your daily life
  • What medicines you’re taking for the pain and how much relief you get from them

Your cancer care team may also need to know:

  • All the medicines you’re taking now, including vitamins, minerals, herbs, supplements, and non-prescription medicines
  • The pain medicines you’ve taken in the past, including what has and has not worked for you
  • Any known allergies to medicines, foods, dyes, or additives

When working on a pain control plan, it helps to take all your medicines, vitamins, minerals, herbs, and non-prescription drugs with you. Show them to your cancer care team and explain how you take them.

Questions you may want to ask about pain medicine include:

  • What are the different names for this medicine?
  • How much should I take? (What’s the dose?)
  • Do I take it on a regular schedule or only when I need it? If only when I need it, how often can I take it?
  • How do I take it?
  • If my pain is not relieved, can I take more? If so, how much?
  • Should I call you before increasing the dose?
  • What if I forget to take it or take it too late?
  • Should I take the pain medicine with food?
  • How much liquid should I drink with the medicine?
  • How long does it take the medicine to start working?
  • Is it safe to drink alcohol or drive after I’ve taken this pain medicine? What should my limits be while taking it?
  • What other medicines can I take with the pain medicine?
  • What medicines should I stop taking or not take while I’m taking the pain medicine?
  • What are possible side effects from the medicine? How can I prevent them? What should I do if I have them?

Making the most of your pain control plan

To help make sure you pain control plan works well:

  • If you’re taking pain medicine on a regular schedule (around the clock) to help control chronic pain, take it when it’s time to take it – even if you’re not having pain.
  • Do not skip doses of your scheduled medicine. The more pain you have, the harder it is to control.
  • Use your short-acting breakthrough pain medicine as instructed. Don’t wait for the pain to get worse – if you do, it can be harder to control.
  • Be sure only one doctor prescribes your pain medicine. If another doctor changes your medicine, the two doctors should discuss your treatment with each other.
  • Don’t run out of pain medicine. Remember that prescriptions are needed for almost all pain medicines – they can’t be called in and drugstores don’t always have them in stock. It can take a few days to get the medicine, so give yourself time for delays.
  • Store pain medicines safely away from children, pets, and others who might take them.
  • Never take someone else’s medicine. Medicines that helped a friend or relative may not be right for you.
  • Do not use old pain medicine or medicine left over from other problems. Drugs that worked for you in the past may not be right for you now.

Keep a record of your pain

You may find it helpful to keep a record or a diary to track details about your pain and what works to ease it. You can share this record with those caring for you. This will help them figure out what method of pain control works best for you. Your records can include:

  • Words to describe the pain (like sharp, dull, throbbing, gnawing, burning, shooting, steady)
  • Anything that seems to make the pain better or worse
  • Any activity that you can’t do because of the pain
  • The name, dose, and time you take your pain medicines
  • The times you use other pain-relief methods (such as relaxation techniques, distraction, or imagery)
  • The number you rate your pain at the time you use a pain-relief measure (medicine or method to reduce pain)
  • Your pain rating 1 to 2 hours after using the pain-relief measure
  • How long the pain medicine works
  • Your pain rating throughout the day (to get an idea of your general comfort)
  • How pain interferes with your normal activities, such as sleeping, eating, sex, or work
  • Any side effects you have that could be from the medicines

You can print out a Pain Diary from our website, or call us to have it mailed to you. 

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: September 23, 2015 Last Revised: September 23, 2015

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