As if the emotional distress from living with cancer isn’t hard enough on patients and their loved ones, patients also have to find relief from the physical pain. Sadly, a journey with cancer – even as a survivor – typically includes various types of pain from treatments, diagnostic testing and/or from the cancer itself. The best thing you can do to improve your quality life during this extremely important battle is to know how to manage cancer pain.

Be proactive as you manage cancer pain

The key to a successful cancer care and pain management plan is early intervention. If you’ve ever had to take pain medication after surgery, you know what happens if you miss a dose. It’s nearly impossible to stay ahead of the pain after you fall behind it. Cancer pain management plans work similarly because the faster you can address your pain, the better your chances are of managing it before it worsens.

Cancer Pain

Try these steps: 

  • Create a personal plan to control your specific type of cancer and subsequent cancer pain.
  • Define strategies and goals, pain medicines, alternative medicines, activities, diets, etc that you want to try as you manage side effects.
  • Ask for guidance from your health care providers, care team, supportive family members and caregivers.
  • Address and share your pain honestly. 

Remember: your main job during and after cancer treatment is to give your body the opportunity to heal. Your long-term objective is survival, and that requires you and your team to treat cancer pain in ways that work for you. 

Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions

The goal of any pain management plan is to relieve or reduce pain, both physical and psychological. Your state-of-mind and mental wellness are critical when it comes to how to manage cancer pain. Understanding your diagnosis and pending procedures is key. 

Try these steps: 

  • Find activities to help you lower your anxiety about diagnostic testing and treatments. 
  • Have open communication with your health care providers, specialists, care team and caregivers.
  • Ask as many questions as you need to ask to feel comfortable.
  • Don’t feel embarrassed if you have to keep asking the same question multiple times,  Everyone processes information differently, so there is no right or wrong way to have tough conversations.
  • Seek out support groups so you can engage with others who truly understand everything you’re going through.

Understanding cancer-related pain

Sometimes cancer pain isn’t just about hurting; instead, it’s about overall discomfort. The American Cancer Society notes that you “should never accept pain as a normal part of having cancer. All pain can be treated, and most pain can be controlled or relieved. When pain is controlled, people can sleep and eat better, enjoy being with family and friends, and continue with their work and hobbies.”

The most common cancer is pain associated with procedures and treatments. Cancer pain can be caused by the cancer itself like circumstances where tumors press on nearby areas. It is also commonly triggered by things such as surgery, intravenous chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy and supportive care therapies.

how to manage cancer pain

Types of pain from treatment include:

  • Spasms, stinging, and itching caused by intravenous chemotherapy
  • Mucositis in the mouth or other parts of the digestive system caused by chemotherapy or targeted therapy
  • Skin pain, rash or hand-foot syndrome caused by chemotherapy or targeted therapy
  • Pain in joints and muscles throughout the body caused by paclitaxel or aromatase inhibitor therapy
  • Osteonecrosis of the jaw caused by bisphosphonates given for cancer that has spread to the bone
  • Pain syndromes caused by radiation, including:
    • Pain from the position the patient stays in during radiation therapy
    • Inflammation in treated areas
    • Dermatitis in treated areas
    • Pain flare-ups

What a cancer pain management plan looks like

The most important thing to do if or when you experience pain is to quickly identify the source and treat it. To learn about your pain, your health care team will ask you to describe the pain. This helps them to figure out how to manage cancer pain most efficiently.

These questions may include:

  • When did the pain start?
  • How long does the pain last?
  • Where is the pain? You will be asked to show exactly where the pain is on your body or on a drawing of a body.
  • How strong is the pain?
  • Have there been changes in where or when the pain occurs?
  • What makes the pain better or worse?
  • Is the pain worse during certain times of the day or night?
  • Is there breakthrough pain (intense pain that flares up quickly even when pain control medicine is being used)?
  • Do you have symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, fatigue, depression, or anxiety?
  • Does pain get in the way of activities of daily life, such as eating, bathing, or moving around?

Your healthcare team will also take into account:

  • Past and current pain treatments
  • Prognosis (chance of recovery)
  • Other conditions you may have, such as kidney, liver, or heart disease
  • Your own choices

This information will be used in combination with a physical and neurological exam to decide how to manage cancer pain – more specifically, how to best relieve your pain. This may include pain relievers like prescription pain medication or other treatments like nerve blocks, cordotomy, radiation therapy (palliative care such as radiation therapy for cancer that has spread to the bones), as well as physical therapy and rehabilitation. Additionally, some cancer patients find pain relief from holistic therapies like acupuncture, hypnosis, massage and relaxation techniques.

February 4th is World Cancer Day

It’s a scary, confusing and isolating reality when you have cancer, but you aren’t alone in the fight. On February 4, 2019, people across the globe come together on World Cancer Day with a united message. The goal is to create a world without cancer and empower people through a collective voice that says, “I am and I will.”

In honor of World Cancer Day, we hope today’s overview of how to create a pain management plan gives you hope. It all starts with being informed, empowered and supported.

If you or someone you love is battling or has survived cancer, raise your voice and share your story to promote World Cancer Day. Learn more about the initiative here:

What is your best tip that helps you manage cancer pain?

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Updated as of January 2019 with new information and resources


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