Pain in People with Cancer

A doctor discusses pain medication with a patient.

Taking pain medicine is an important part of your cancer treatment plan.

Cancer itself and the side effects of cancer treatment can sometimes cause pain. Pain is not something that you have to “put up with.” Controlling pain is an important part of your cancer treatment plan. Pain can suppress the immune system, increase the time it takes your body to heal, interfere with sleep, and affect your mood.

Talk with your health care team about pain, especially if:

  • the pain isn’t getting better or going away with pain medicine
  • the pain comes on quickly
  • the pain makes it hard to eat, sleep, or perform your normal activities
  • you feel new pain
  • you have side effects from the pain medicine such as sleepiness, nausea, or constipation

Your doctor will work with you to develop a pain control plan that is based on your description of the pain. Taking pain medicine is an important part of the plan. Your doctor will talk with you about using drugs to control pain and prescribe medicine (including opioids and nonopioid medicines) to treat the pain.

Ways to Treat or Lessen Pain

Here are some steps you can take, as you work with your health care team to prevent, treat, or lessen pain:

  • Keep track of your pain levels. Each day, write about any pain you feel. Writing down answers to the questions below will help you describe the pain to your doctor or nurse.
    • What part of your body feels painful?
    • What does the pain feel like (is it sharp, burning, shooting, or throbbing) and where do you feel the pain?
    • When does the pain start? How long does the pain last?
    • What activities (such as eating, sleeping, or other activities) does pain interfere with?
    • What makes the pain feel better or worse? For example, do ice packs, heating pads, or exercises help? Does pain medicine help? How much do you take? How often do you take it?
    • How bad is the pain, on a scale of 1 to 10, where “10” is the most pain and “1” is the least pain?
  • Take the prescribed pain medicine. Take the right amount of medicine at the right time. Do not wait until your pain gets too bad before taking pain medicine. Waiting to take your medicine could make it take longer for the pain to go away or increase the amount of medicine needed to lower pain. Do not stop taking the pain medicine unless your doctor advises you to. Tell your doctor or nurse if the medicine no longer lowers the pain, or if you are in pain, but it’s not yet time to take the pain medicine.
  • Meet with a pain specialist. Specialists who treat pain often work together as part of a pain or palliative care team. These specialists may include a neurologist, surgeon, physiatrist, psychiatrist, psychologist, or pharmacist. Talk with your health care team to find a pain specialist.
  • Ask about integrative medicine. Treatments such as acupuncture, biofeedback, hypnosis, massage therapy and physical therapy may also be used to treat pain.

TCH’s Cancer Pain PDQ® summary has additional information on managing and treating cancer-associated pain. View the patient or health professional version.

Talking With Your Health Care Team about Pain

Prepare for your visit by making a list of questions to ask. Consider adding these questions to your list:

  • What problems or levels of pain should I call you about?
  • What is most likely causing the pain?
  • What can I do to lessen the pain?
  • What medicine should I take? If the pain doesn’t go away, how much more medicine can I take, and when can I take it?
  • What are the side effects of this pain medicine? How long will they last?
  • Is there a pain specialist I could meet with to get more support to lower my pain?