Cancer Pain

What is cancer pain?

Cancer can cause pain by growing into or destroying tissue near the cancer. Cancer pain can come from the primary cancer itself — where the cancer started — or from other areas in the body where the cancer has spread (metastases). As a tumor grows, it may put pressure on nerves, bones or organs, causing pain.

Cancer pain occurs in many ways. Your pain may be dull, achy or sharp. It could be constant, intermittent, mild, moderate or severe.

The type of cancer pain you feel depends on the type of cancer you have and how it affects your body. For example:

  • Deep, aching pain. A tumor that presses on your bones or grows into your bones can cause deep, aching pain. Bone pain is the most common type of cancer pain.
  • Burning pain. A tumor that presses on a nerve can cause a burning feeling. Sometimes chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery damages nerves and causes burning pain. Nerve pain is the second most common type of cancer pain.
  • Phantom pain. Pain that is felt in the area where an arm or a breast has been removed is phantom pain. Although the body part is gone, nerve endings at the site still send pain signals to the brain. The brain thinks the body part is still there.
  • Acute pain is bad pain that lasts a short time. Chronic pain is pain that comes and goes for a long time. It is a side effect of the cancer or treatment. Chronic pain can range from mild to severe. Breakthrough pain is strong pain that occurs while you are taking medicines that usually control your pain. This kind of pain usually begins suddenly and lasts for a short period of time.

Not everyone feels pain in the same way. Only you can describe how much pain you have. The key to getting your pain under control is being able to tell your doctor what it feels like and what does and doesn’t work for you.

What causes cancer pain?

Cancer pain can result from the cancer itself. Cancer can cause pain by growing into or destroying tissue near the cancer. Cancer pain can come from the primary cancer itself — where the cancer started — or from other areas in the body where the cancer has spread (metastases). As a tumor grows, it may put pressure on nerves, bones or organs, causing pain.

Cancer pain may not just be from the physical effect of the cancer on a region of the body, but also due to chemicals that the cancer may release in the region of the tumor. Treatment of the cancer can help the pain in these situations.

Cancer treatments — such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery — are another potential source of cancer pain. Surgery can be painful, and it may take time to recover. Radiation may leave behind a burning sensation or painful scars. And chemotherapy can cause many potentially painful side effects, including mouth sores, diarrhea and nerve damage.

How is cancer pain treated?

There are many different ways to treat cancer pain. One way is to remove the source of the pain, for example, through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or some other form of treatment. If that can’t be done, pain medications can usually control the pain. These medications include:

Over-the-counter and prescription-strength pain relievers, such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others)

Weak opioid (derived from opium) medications, such as codeine

Strong opioid medications, such as morphine (Avinza, Ms Contin, others), oxycodone (Oxycontin, Roxicodone, others), hydromorphone (Dilaudid, Exalgo), fentanyl (Actiq, Fentora, others), methadone (Dolophine, Methadose) or oxymorphone (Opana)

These drugs can often be taken orally, so they’re easy to use. Medications may come in tablet form, or they may be made to dissolve quickly in your mouth. However, if you’re unable to take medications orally, they may also be taken intravenously, rectally or through the skin using a patch.

Specialized treatment, such as nerve blocks, also may be used. Nerve blocks are a local anesthetic that is injected around or into a nerve, which prevents pain messages traveling along that nerve pathway from reaching the brain.
Other therapies such as acupuncture, acupressure, massage, physical therapy, relaxation, meditation and humor may help.

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