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Cancer: Controlling Cancer Pain

Cancer: Controlling Cancer Pain


Cancer and some of the treatments for it can cause pain. But having cancer does not mean that you have to live with pain. Medicines and other treatments can reduce or stop your pain completely. Getting your pain under control is an important part of cancer treatment. It can help you eat and sleep better, have more energy for your usual activities, and enjoy time with your family and friends.

Pain control starts with finding the cause of the pain. As soon as your doctor knows what is causing your pain, the doctor can recommend the best treatment for your type of pain.

Medicines are often used to treat pain. You and your doctor may need to adjust your medicine to help you get the best possible pain control with the fewest side effects. Your doctor may suggest different medicines, combinations of medicines, or higher doses. You do not need to "tough it out" or wait until your pain is bad before you take medicine. Pain medicine may work better if you use it when you first notice pain, before it becomes bad.

You are the only person who can say how much pain you have, or if a certain pain medicine is working for you. It is important to tell your doctor what your pain feels like and what works and does not work. The more specific you can be about your pain, the better your doctor will be able to treat it.

Besides pain medicine, there also are many other ways to control cancer pain, including things you can do at home. Some people find acupuncture, massage, and aromatherapy helpful. Or you may want to use relaxation exercises, biofeedback, or guided imagery to help you cope better with the pain. Emotional support from your family and friends can also help.

How can you control the pain caused by cancer?

Work with your doctor

Your doctor needs all the information you can give about what your pain feels like. It often helps to write things down in a pain diary.

  • Write down when your pain starts, what it feels like, and how long it lasts. Use words like dull, aching, sharp, shooting, throbbing, or burning.
  • Note changes in your pain. Is it constant, or does it come and go? Do you have more than one kind of pain? How long does it last?
  • Rate your pain on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain you can imagine.
  • Write exactly where you feel pain. You can use a drawing. Say whether the pain is just in that one place or several places at once. Or tell your doctor if it travels from one place to another.
  • Write down what makes your pain better or worse. Note when you used a treatment, how well it worked, and any side effects.

If you and your doctor are not able to control your pain, ask about seeing a pain specialist. A pain specialist is a health professional who focuses on treating resistant pain.

Talk to your doctor if you are having problems with depression. Treating depression can make it easier to manage your cancer pain.

Get the most from your medicine

Most people are able to manage their cancer pain well with medicine. These steps can help you get the most from your medicine.

  • Stay on top of your pain.

    Your pain medicine may work better if you use it when you first notice pain, before it becomes bad.

  • Be ready for breakthrough pain.

    Your doctor can give you a prescription for fast-acting medicine that you can take for this sudden, intense pain that can happen while you are already taking pain medicine.

  • Work with your care team.
    • Ask one doctor to be in charge of all your medicines. If more than one doctor prescribes pain medicine, make sure they talk to each other about it.
    • Use a daily pain diary to describe and rate your pain. Write down what medicines you take and any other methods you use to control your pain. Share this information with your doctor.
  • Keep track of your medicines.

    It's easy to get confused about medicines when you are in pain and looking for something to help you feel better. Make a list with the name of each medicine, the dose, how often you can take it, and how well it works.

  • Be prepared for side effects.

    Pain medicines may cause side effects, such as constipation or nausea. Before you start to take a medicine, ask your doctor about the possible side effects and ways to manage them.

Use self-care at home

Home treatment may help to reduce cancer pain and improve your physical and mental well-being. Things you can try at home include heat and cold treatments, gentle massage, physical activity, and distraction. Be sure to talk with your doctor about any home treatment you may use.

Ask about nonmedical treatments

Counseling, including cognitive behavioral therapy, may help you manage cancer pain or the pain from cancer treatments. Integrative practices, such as acupuncture, massage, and relaxation exercises, are helpful for some people with cancer pain. Ask your doctor if you think you might want to try one of these.


Current as of: July 10, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

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