Many cancer patients experience pain due to their condition at some point in their treatment. However, each patient experiences this pain differently, and descriptions of the pain can vary widely.
According to Cancer Research UK, most cancer pain is caused by the tumour pressing on bones, nerves or other organs in your body. Sometimes pain is related to your cancer treatment. For example, some chemotherapy drugs can cause numbness and tingling in your hands and feet or a burning sensation at the place where they are injected. Radiotherapy can cause skin redness and irritation.
Acute and Chronic Pain
Cancer pain can be acute or chronic. Acute pain is due to damage caused by an injury and tends to only last a short time. For example, having an operation can cause acute pain. The pain goes when the wound heals. In the meantime, painkillers will usually keep it under control.
Chronic pain is pain caused by changes to nerves. Nerve changes may occur due to cancer pressing on nerves or due to chemicals produced by a tumour. It can also be caused by nerve changes due to cancer treatment. The pain continues long after the injury or treatment is over and can range from mild to severe. It can be there all the time and is also called persistent pain. Chronic pain can be difficult to treat, but painkillers or other pain control methods can often successfully control it.
Pain that is not well controlled can develop into chronic pain. So it is important to take painkillers that you are prescribed. Trying to put up with the pain can make it harder to control in the future.
If you have chronic cancer pain, you may have times when the pain is not controlled by the medicines you are taking. This is called breakthrough pain. If you are taking regular painkillers but still get pain at times, let your doctor or nurse know. They can prescribe extra top up doses of painkillers for you to take when you need them.
Sometimes pain can come on quickly, for example when you need to have a dressing changed or move around. This type of pain is called incident pain.
There is information about how pain can be managed on our page about treating cancer pain.
Pain can greatly affect your quality of life. Chronic pain can make it hard for you to do everyday things such as bathing, shopping, cooking, sleeping and eating. This may be hard for your close friends and relatives to understand. There is information about how your pain can affect you and your loved ones, and how to deal with this, on our page about support when you have pain.
Some treatment options for cancer pain include the use of a TENS unit, nerve blocks and massage therapy. Pharmaceutical treatments may include over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), opiate medications and muscle relaxants.