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Cancer Pain (PDQ®)

General Information About Cancer Pain

Cancer, treatment for cancer, or diagnostic tests may cause you to feel pain.

Pain is one of the most common symptoms in cancer patients. Pain can be caused by cancer, treatment for cancer, or a combination of factors. Tumors, surgery, intravenous chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, supportive care therapies such as bisphosphonates, and diagnostic procedures may cause you pain.

Younger patients are more likely to have cancer pain and pain flares than older patients. Patients with advanced cancer have more severe pain, and many cancer survivors have pain that continues after cancer treatment ends.

This summary is about ways to control cancer pain in adults.

Pain control can improve your quality of life.

Pain can be controlled in most patients who have cancer. Although cancer pain cannot always be relieved completely, there are ways to lessen pain in most patients. Pain control can improve your quality of life all through your cancer treatment and after it ends.

Pain can be managed before, during, and after diagnostic and treatment procedures.

Many diagnostic and treatment procedures are painful. It helps to start pain control before the procedure begins. Some drugs may be used to help you feel calm or fall asleep. Treatments such as imagery or relaxation can also help control pain and anxiety related to treatment. Knowing what will happen during the procedure and having a relative or friend stay with you may also help lower anxiety.

Different cancer treatments may cause specific types of pain.

Patients may have different types of pain depending on the treatments they receive, including:

  • Spasms, stinging, and itching caused by intravenous chemotherapy.
  • Mucositis (sores or inflammation in the mouth or other parts of the digestive system) caused by chemotherapy or targeted therapy.
  • Skin pain, rash, or hand-foot syndrome (redness, tingling, or burning in the palms of the hands and/or the soles of feet) 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 brachytherapy.
    • Pain from the position the patient stays in during radiation therapy.
    • Mucositis.
    • Inflammation of the mucous membranes in areas that were treated with radiation.
    • Dermatitis (inflammation of the skin in areas that were treated with radiation).
    • Pain flares (a temporary worsening of pain in the treated area).

Cancer pain may affect quality of life and ability to function even after treatment ends.

Pain that is severe or continues after cancer treatment ends increases the risk of anxiety and depression. Patients may be disabled by their pain, unable to work, or feel that they are losing support once their care moves from their oncology team back to their primary care team. Feelings of anxiety and depression can worsen cancer pain and make it harder to control.

Each patient needs a personal plan to control cancer pain.

Each person's diagnosis, cancer stage, response to pain, and personal likes and dislikes are different. For this reason, each patient needs a personal plan to control cancer pain. You, your family, and your healthcare team can work together to manage your pain. As part of your pain control plan, your healthcare provider can give you and your family members written instructions to control your pain at home. Find out who you should call if you have questions.

Date last modified: 2017-08-31

Date last modified: 2017-08-31

Date last modified: 2017-08-31

Date last modified: 2017-08-31

Last updated: 2017-11-08

Source: The National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries (