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What is Cancer Pain?

Cancer pain is pain that is caused by cancer.

Some of the sources of cancer pain include:

  • Lumps or growths called tumors [too-mers] pushing against bones, nerves, or other sensitive areas in the body
  • Medical tests to check for cancer, some of which can cause pain
  • Cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery

Cancer pain can range from mild to severe. It can come and go or may last for a long time.

Dealing with the pain that comes from cancer should be part of your overall cancer treatment plan. Getting treatment for cancer pain can greatly improve your quality of life. Finding the right treatment plan for pain should be a priority.

Cancer pain is often treated with medicine taken by mouth, but there are many other forms of treatment that may work well when used at the same time as medicine.


The symptoms of cancer pain depend on the cause of the pain. Some of those symptoms include:

  • Muscle spasms, stinging, or itching caused by chemotherapy
  • Sores in the mouth or other parts of the digestive system that are caused by chemotherapy
  • Skin pain, rash, redness, tingling, or burning in the hands and feet that can be caused by chemotherapy
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Pain in the jaw
  • Pain from the position you stay in during therapy

When to See a Doctor

Talk to your doctor when you experience any kind of cancer pain. Don’t ignore any cancer pain you may feel. Cancer pain can usually be controlled and lessened. This can help you keep a positive outlook on your illness. Cancer pain may not always be removed completely, but it can be lessened in almost all patients.


Cancer pain may come from the cancer tumors, the cancer treatments, or the cancer tests. It is very common for patients with cancer to have some type of cancer pain.

Diagnosis and Tests

Your doctor may ask you some questions, so they can give you the right treatment. They may ask you:

  • What your pain feels like, whether it aches, throbs, is constant or only present when you do certain things
  • Where the pain is in your body
  • How long you feel the pain
  • How strong the pain is, or how much it hurts
  • If there are things that make the pain feel better or worse
  • If there are certain times when it feels better or worse
  • If your pain prevents you from doing things you need or want to do

Your doctor may ask you to rate the pain on a chart or a scale, according to how severe it is. For example, they may ask you to give your pain a number from 0 to 10.

  • 0 would mean you feel no pain
  • 5 would mean you feel moderate pain
  • 10 would feel you feel the most severe pain

You may also want to keep track of your pain in a pain diary. Be sure to record the doses of medicine you take, at what times, and how much it helps in your pain diary. This will help you keep your doctor up to date on how well the medicine is working.


The main treatment for cancer pain is pain medicine. There are different kinds of medicine that work in different ways:

  • Non-opioid pain relievers. These are best for treating mild or moderate pain. These medicines are often called NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and are available over the counter. Greater strengths may be available by prescription.
    • Acetaminophen [uh-see-tuh-MIN-uh-fuhn] (Tylenol)
    • Aspirin
    • Ibuprofen [ahy-byoo-PROH-fuhn] (Advil, Motrin)
    • Naproxen [nuh-PROK-suhn] (Aleve)
  • Opioids or narcotics. These are much stronger medications that treat moderate to severe pain. You need a prescription for opioids. Opioids may cause side effects. Many of the most common side effects are mild, such as:
    • Constipation
    • Nausea
    • Dry mouth
    • Drowsiness

However, some of the side effects of opioids can be more severe, such as slowed breathing. Opioids can also become addictive. There is a risk of overdose, especially if your body becomes addicted. If your doctor prescribes opioids, you should work with them to keep track of your usage. Follow instructions carefully. Some example of opioids include:

  • Codeine [KOH-deen]
  • Fentanyl [FEN-tuh-nil]
  • Morphine [MAWR-feen]
  • Oxycodone [ok-see-KOH-dohn]
  • Anticonvulsants or antidepressants. These may be used to help with nerve pain
  • Steroids. These may be used to help with pain and swelling.

When taking pain medicines, follow these guidelines.

  • Be sure to tell your doctor about any of the other medicines you may be taking. Some medicines should not be taken at the same time.
  • Don’t skip doses. Pain is easiest to treat when it’s treated early.
  • Don’t take more than prescribed.
  • Don’t wait until pain is severe to take the medication. This can make it harder to treat the pain.
  • Don’t stop taking the medicine before your doctor says to stop. Let your doctor know if the medicine is causing painful side effects or other problems. The doctor can help you switch medicines or take care of other issues that arise.
  • Tell your doctor if it isn’t working. They may have you take the medicine more often or switch to another medicine.

Besides medicines, other treatments for cancer pain include:

  • Transcutaneous [trans-kyoo-TEY-nee-uhs] Electric Nerve Stimulation or TENS. With this method, an electrical current is placed onto the pain center. This may help decrease the pain.
  • Nerve Block. With this method, a special kind of medicine is placed inside of the nerve, or around it, to decrease pain.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation treatment can shrink the tumor, which may help relieve pain.
  • Chemotherapy [kee-moh-THER-uh-pee]. Chemotherapy can help to shrink pain-causing tumors.
  • Surgery. Surgery can remove all or part of a tumor that is causing the pain. Sometimes surgery is done to cut nerves that are carrying pain messages to your brain.

There are other kinds of treatments that may help relieve pain when you use them along with medical care. These methods include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic
  • Meditating
  • Support groups
  • Palliative care


You may not be able to prevent all cancer pain, but you can manage it if you find the right combination of treatments. With a good team, good support, and a good plan, cancer pain can be dealt with effectively.

Cancer pain is pain that is caused by cancer, treatment for cancer, or tests to find cancer. Treatment of cancer pain can help increase quality of life and improve outlook during the fight against cancer. Cancer pain is most often treated using medicine, but there are many other methods that can be used along with medicine to treat cancer pain.