For many people, the scariest part of a cancer diagnosis is the fear of experiencing pain. Pain is a experience faced by some people with cancer but it can be treated and managed in a way that is very tolerable for most. Admitting that you are in pain is not a sign of weakness. In order to better manage pain and discomfort, it is helpful to know how to communicate about pain and how to effectively take control of pain and discomfort before you become distressed. Please talk to your healthcare team about any discomfort you are experiencing.

What Causes Pain in People with Cancer?
Tumors can cause pain when they press on a nerve, invade bones, or press on a body organ. Medical tests for cancer (biopsies), or the actual treatment for cancer might also cause pain and discomfort. For example, inflammation of the mucous membranes anywhere in the body caused by certain kinds of chemotherapy or by radiation can be very painful. Or if a nerve is damaged during treatment, it may cause burning or shooting pain. Not all pain you experience will be directly associated to your cancer or your treatment.

How Should You Describe Your Pain?
You are the expert, so the healthcare team will ask you to describe and rate your pain. By talking about pain, you begin the process of controlling it. Recording details in your journal can be very helpful. Some of the important characteristics of your pain to discuss are:
  • Severity- How bad is the pain on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being “no pain” and 10 being “the worst pain you can imagine.”
  • Location- Where is the pain? Is it in more than one place?
  • Frequency and Duration- When do you have pain? Is the pain always there or does it come and go? How long does it last? Is it better or worse at different times of the day or night?
  • Quality- Describe the pain. Is it burning or stabbing? Sharp or dull? Cramping?
  • Change- What makes it better (medication, a heating pad) or worse (moving, coughing)?

Helpful Tips for Controlling Pain

  • Take charge and become an active participant in the management of your pain.
  • Be honest with your healthcare team about your pain.
  • Note how much medication you are taking and the time you take it.
  • Make sure you are taking medications to prevent constipation if you are taking pain medication.
  • Do NOT wait until the pain is unbearable to take your pain medication. It is easier to prevent pain, or relieve it when it starts, than it is to treat pain once it becomes severe.

Use of Pain Medications

Many find it helps to have two different pain medicines; one that is long-acting ensuring that there is some pain medicine in the body at all times, and the other short-acting for when you need an extra boost. Many people with cancer are fearful of getting addicted to pain medicines, or worry that pain medicines won’t work later if they use them early on. These are both myths. The right amount of pain medicine is the amount that controls most or all of the pain, most or all of the time. With regular communications with your healthcare team about your pain, your pain medication can be adjusted accordingly. 

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