Life After Cancer Treatment: Managing Pain

Some people have a lot of pain after treatment, while others have less. Everyone is different. Types of pain you may feel after cancer treatment include:

  • Pain or numbness in the hands and feet due to injured nerves. Chemotherapy or surgery can damage nerves, which can cause severe pain. For more information on nervous system changes, see Nervous System Changes (Neuropathy).
  • Painful scars from surgery.
  • Pain in a missing limb or breast. While doctors don't know why this pain occurs, it is real. It's not just "in your mind." This is sometimes called phantom pain.

Getting Help

If you find that you still have pain after treatment ends, your doctor can help find the source of your pain and get relief. You do not have to be in pain. And wanting to control pain is not a sign of weakness. It's a way to help you feel better and stay active. Pain may be caused by treatment or other health issues, such as arthritis.

With your help, your doctor can assess how severe your pain is and may recommend one or more of the following approaches:

  • Pain-relief medicines. In most cases, doctors will try the mildest medicines first. Then they will work up to stronger ones if you need them. The key to getting relief is to take all medicines just as your doctor prescribes. To keep pain under control, do not skip doses or wait until you hurt to take these medicines. You may be afraid that if you use these medicines you'll become addicted, but this rarely happens if you take the correct dose and see your doctor regularly.
  • Antidepressant medicines. Some of these are prescribed to reduce pain or numbness from injured nerves.
  • Physical therapy. Going to a physical therapist may help relieve your pain. The therapist may use heat, cold, massage, pressure, and/or exercise to help you feel better.
  • Braces. These limit movement of a painful limb or joint.
  • Acupuncture. This is a proven method that uses needles at pressure points to reduce pain.
  • Hypnosis, meditation, or yoga. Any of these may help your pain. A trained specialist can teach you these approaches.
  • Relaxation skills. Many people with cancer have found that practicing deep relaxation helps relieve their pain or reduce their stress.
  • Nerve blocks or surgery. If you don't get relief from the other approaches in this section, you may want to ask your doctor about these. Nerve blocks or surgery often help if you have persistent, limiting pain, but they may put you at risk for other problems. They may also require you to stay in the hospital.

Talking With Your Doctor About Pain

There are different ways you can describe your pain to your doctor:

  • Use numbers. Talk about how strong the pain feels on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain you could have.
  • Describe what the pain feels like. Is it sharp, dull, throbbing, steady?
  • Point out the exact places it hurts, either on your body or on a drawing. Note whether the pain stays in one place or whether it moves outward from the spot.
  • Explain when you feel pain. Note when it starts, how long it lasts, if it gets better or worse at certain times of the day or night, and if anything you do makes it better or worse.
  • Describe how your pain affects your daily life. Does it stop you from working? Doing household chores? Seeing friends and family? Going out and having fun?
  • Make a list of all the medicines you are taking (for any reason). If you are taking any for pain relief, how much do they help?
  • Talk about any side effects you have from your pain control medicine, such as constipation or other changes in bowel habits, or feeling groggy or "out of it." Many of these problems can be helped.
  • Keep a record of your pain. Jotting down notes about your pain can help you track changes over time. It can also show how you respond to any pain control medicine or other treatment you receive.

Make sure your insurance covers the pain relief approaches your doctor recommends.

Pain Diary

Use a pain diary and pain rating scale to record your pain. You can print one here, or make your own table with columns for Date, Time, Pain rating (1-10), Pain medication (name, dose, how often taken), Other pain-relief methods tried, and Side effects from pain medication.

Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/life-after-treatme... June 5, 2018.

Document source: 
National Cancer Institute
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