Cancer pain

Fast facts about cancer pain

  • Not everyone with cancer has pain48
  • Cancer pain is usually caused by the cancer itself when it presses on nerves, bone or organs48
  • Most cancer pain can be controlled or relieved48
  • Types of analgesics used to treat cancer pain include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, paracetamol, codeine, or stronger opioids if the pain is severe49
  • Well-controlled cancer pain improves quality of life48

Not everyone with cancer has pain, but some people do.48 If you have uncontrolled cancer pain, it may affect you in different ways, e.g. you might not be able to do your daily chores, or you may have trouble eating or sleeping, or you may feel frustrated and sad.48

What are the causes of cancer pain?

Pain is usually caused by the cancer itself when it presses on organs, bones or nerves.48 People with advanced cancer usually experience more pain.48 Pain can also be caused by cancer treatments themselves or can be unrelated to the cancer, e.g. muscle strains.48

There are 3 main types of cancer pain:

  • Acute pain – this is a severe pain that lasts a short period of time and goes away as soon as the injury has healed.48
  • Chronic pain – this is persistent pain that lasts longer than 3 months and disrupts your life if not treated. It ranges from mild to severe and can be controlled by taking regular pain medication.48
  • Breakthrough pain – this is pain that flares up even though you are taking pain medication regularly for chronic pain.48 It comes on quickly, can last as long as an hour and is more severe than the chronic pain experienced.48

Taking control of cancer pain

The good news is that most cancer pain can be controlled or relieved.48 When pain is controlled, you will sleep and eat better, enjoy being with family and friends and be able to continue with your daily activities.48

Cancer pain can be controlled in a variety of ways.49 One is through treatment of the cancer itself with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or other therapies.49

Pain medications and treatments can help to control pain. These include:49

  • Over-the-counter analgesics, e.g. non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), paracetamol and codeine
  • Strong opioids, e.g. morphine
  • Other medications, e.g. antidepressants, anti-epileptic drugs and steroids
  • Specialised treatments, e.g. nerve blocks
  • Other therapies, e.g. acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, relaxation and hypnosis

What you can do at home

  • Rate your pain on a scale of 0-10 and talk with your doctor about your pain if uncontrolled46,50

Adapted from the Acute pain guidelines, 201646

  • Take your pain medication exactly as prescribed and check with your doctor if the schedule needs to be adjusted50
  • Don’t wait until your pain is severe before taking your medicine for breakthrough pain50
  • Don’t suddenly stop your pain medicine without speaking to your doctor50
  • Keep track of any side effects of your pain medication and discuss them with your doctor, e.g. constipation, nausea, dizziness, sleepiness50
  • Keep at least a week’s supply of pain medicines on hand to prevent you from running out50

When to see a doctor:

It's time to see your doctor if you:50

  • Have new or worse pain
  • Can't take anything by mouth, including the pain medicine
  • Don't get pain relief, or if the relief doesn't last long enough
  • Have trouble waking up, or if you have trouble staying awake
  • Become constipated, nauseated, or confused
  • Have any questions about how to take the medicines
  • Develop a new symptom (for instance, unable to walk, eat, or pass urine)

Frequently asked questions