Pain Relief Options for Cancer Patients

Getting the bad news that you have cancer often engenders many questions. What are the chances I will survive? If I beat it this time, how likely is it that it will come back? Did I do something to cause it? Your oncologist can help answer these questions and prepare you for the challenges of your cancer treatment program, but you may want the assistance of a pain medicine specialist for cancer pain relief.

Although pain is not present among all cancer patients, it is a fairly common component of these cases. Pain may be caused by a cancerous growth pressing on a nerve, bone or organ. It may also be caused by some cancer therapies. If you are concerned about pain symptoms, you may wish to speak to a specialist about pain management alternatives.

What Is Cancer?

First of all, you should know that you are not alone in your fight against cancer.  In 2018, it is estimated that more than 1.7 million Americans will receive a cancer diagnosis. Almost 38 percent of all people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, so it is a fairly common occurrence. The prevalence of cancer has helped advance our understanding of this disease.

This increasing understanding of cancer has helped limit deaths in a number of ways.  From 1991 to 2015, the mortality rate fell 26 percent. This is partially due to better treatment options, but there are also more accurate screening tests that have allowed physicians to make earlier diagnoses so that survival rates increase.

Cancer is a relatively simple disease; at its most fundamental, it is an overabundance of cell growth. Normal cells will multiply to satisfy a physiological need like growth or tissue repair, but it will stop replicating once that need is met. However, cancerous cell growth doesn’t stop as it should, leading to painful tumors that leech the body of nutrients.  If left unchecked, cancer will kill the patient by starving healthy cells.

There are some differences between cancer cells and healthy cells, but it is difficult to differentiate between them from a medical perspective.  Normal and cancerous cell growth is very similar in many ways, so turning off an unhealthy cell replication process can damage the body in other ways, which is why it has proven so difficult to treat cancer.

How Is Cancer Treated?

Over centuries, physicians have developed many ways to slow or halt the spread of cancer, but there is no magic bullet that will eliminate all forms of cancer once it appears. Most oncologists will use the treatment options that present the highest chance of putting the cancer into remission. If the initial therapies don’t work, then they will resort to less effective or more risky options. Some of these options include

  • Chemotherapy—this therapy uses specialized drugs that target cancer cells and halt their growth.  Unfortunately, this is not a precise treatment, so healthy cells also are affected. There are common side effects to chemotherapy that may include headaches, muscle pain, stomach aches and nerve pain. Although most of these effects subside between chemotherapy sessions, nerve pain may continue or even worsen over time.
  • Immunotherapy—this therapy uses your own immune system to target unnatural cancer cells.  Clinicians can produce monoclonal antibodies that seek out certain features of cancer cells and attach themselves.  Your immune system can use these monoclonal antibodies as a way to distinguish between healthy and cancerous cells, and initiate an attack to stop or slow tumor growth. Patients may need pain relief for fatigue, fever, nausea and chills.
  • Radiation therapy—by applying high energy radiation to cancer cells, a doctor can destroy or limit cancerous growths.   Radiation oncologists zero in on cancer cells and only expose them to the x-rays or other types of radiation. The most common side effects of radiation therapy include extreme fatigue, hair loss, and skin irritation.
  • Surgery—if your cancer is localized to an accessible area, surgical removal may be a viable option.  A surgeon may attempt to remove the entire tumor, a portion of it (to allow other treatment more efficacy), or limit the tumor’s affect on neighboring nerves or organs.  Pain following surgery is common, but potent pain relievers are usually prescribed.

Cancer Pain Management Alternatives

There are many kinds of pain associated with cancer. Some patients may feel acute episodes of pain, while others may experience ongoing, chronic pain symptoms. You should describe your pain symptoms to your doctor as accurately as possible so that you can work together to develop a pain management plan.

In most cases of severe or chronic pain, oncologists will recommend that you take opioid pain killers. If you are experiencing only mild to moderate pain, then your doctor may recommend only over-the-counter drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen.

If medications prove ineffective, then your doctor may recommend one or more of the following pain management alternatives.

  • Nerve blocks—if your pain can be localized to a set of nerves, then your doctor may use a nerve block for pain relief.   This involves injections of anesthetic possibly with anti-inflammatory steroids into a nerve cluster for long-term relief.
  • Cordotomy—for cancer patients with severe, chronic pain, a doctor may use a very precise radiofrequency needle to create a lesion in the spinal cord.   This permanent solution blocks pain sensations from various bodily regions.
  • Palliative radiation therapy—in addition to serving as a treatment for cancer, radiation therapy may also be used as a pain relief technique. By exposing tumors to concentrated radiation, doctors can shrink them, relieving pressure on bones, organs or nerves.
  • Physical therapy—for some cancer patients, this illness or the treatments may inhibit physical function which may in turn stiffen joints and weaken muscles.  This may consequently lead to secondary pain symptoms that may be relieved through exercise or physical manipulation.  Physical therapy may employ many techniques like exercises and massage to strengthen muscles and restore lost physical functionality, thereby relieving pain.


Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.