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Life After Cancer: Managing Pain 

Pain is a common side effect of cancer and cancer treatment. But sometimes people have pain even after cancer is gone and treatment is over. It can cause problems with every day life. It can make it harder to enjoy things and to do the things you need to do. It’s important to work with your healthcare team to control your pain. 

What causes pain after cancer treatment? 

Pain after cancer treatment can be caused by many things. For instance, it can be caused by scar tissue from surgery or radiation. Pain can be caused by damage to your skin, bones, or other organs from radiation or chemotherapy. Or you may have nerve damage that causes pain and tingling. (This is called neuropathy.) Some of the medicines used to treat cancer can cause joint pain and stiffness. In some cases, it may be hard to find the exact cause of pain. 

Types of treatments for pain 

You may find that certain types of pain treatment works better for you than others. And you may have to try different treatments until you figure out what works best for you. You may even use some of the same kinds of pain control treatments you used during cancer treatment. For instance, your healthcare provider may prescribe the same pain medicine.

Common pain treatments are:

  • Opioid pain medicines. These are strong medicines that ease pain. They can be given in many ways, such as liquid, pills, nose sprays, and patches. These medicines tend to cause side effects. They can make you feel sleepy and confused. But this often gets better within a week or so. Opioids make it hard to move your bowels. Your healthcare provider will talk with you about what you can do to help keep this from happening. Your dose may need to change over time, too. It depends on your side effects and how well your pain is controlled.

  • Non-opioid pain medicines. Other types of medicines may help ease your pain. These include acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin. Or you may be given medicines like steroids, antidepressants, muscle relaxants, and anticonvulsants. Make sure you know what side effects to watch for.

  • Transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS). This is a type of therapy that uses mild electric currents to help ease some kinds of pain.

  • Cold or heat therapy. Cold can help lessen pain. Heat can soothe sore muscles and aching joints. For cold therapy, place a cold pack wrapped in a thin towel on the painful spot. Keep it there for up to 10 minutes at a time. For heat therapy, place a heating pad wrapped in a thin towel on stiff or sore areas for up to 20 minutes at a time. Ask your healthcare provider for directions. Don’t use heat or cold on any parts of your body that are numb, are at risk for swelling (lymphedema), or have poor blood circulation.

  • Acupuncture. This type of therapy uses very thin needles put in certain parts of the body. The needles are left in for up to 30 minutes and then taken out. Some people find that it can help ease pain all over the body. Your healthcare provider can help you find a certified, licensed acupuncture therapist.

  • Hypnotherapy. A trained therapist can help you reach a state of relaxation that helps relieve pain.

  • Guided imagery. This type of therapy helps you create images in your mind to help you relax and lessen feelings of pain.  

Talk with your healthcare providers before using any of kind of pain relief method. They may advise you not to use certain things for your health and safety. They may also be able to find you a trained professional so you get the best and safest possible therapy or treatment.

If you are taking pain medicine 

If you're taking pain medicine, don’t take any other medicine, vitamin, or supplement without talking with your healthcare provider first. Some pain medicines interact with other medicines and supplements, including marijuana and illegal drugs. This can cause very serious problems. 

Some prescription pain medicines contain more than 1 type of medicine. For instance, you may be taking a combination of codeine and aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen. But you don’t know that based on the name of the medicine. This means if you also take over-the-counter aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen, or even cold medicines that contain these medicines, it could lead to an overdose. When you're taking prescription pain medicines, check with your healthcare team or pharmacist before taking any over-the counter medicines. 

While you are taking pain medicine:

  • Take it exactly as prescribed. Don’t take more than the prescribed dose.

  • Be prepared for constipation. Take steps to prevent it.

  • Don’t drive if the medicine makes you sleepy.

  • Don’t drink alcohol.

  • Don’t take any other medicine until you check with your healthcare provider or pharmacist first. 

If you want to try decreasing or stopping your pain medicine, get your healthcare provider’s help. Don’t just stop taking pain medicine. You may need to slowly stop taking it. Your provider can help you plan the best way to do this. 

Keeping a daily pain journal 

Writing down information about your pain every day will help your healthcare team better understand and treat it. It can also help you and your team see what’s working and what isn’t. Every day, write down:

  • When the pain starts and stops, or if it’s there all the time

  • Where the pain is in your body

  • What the pain feels like: sharp, aching, throbbing, burning

  • How mild or severe it is, on a scale of 0 to 10. Zero is no pain. Ten is the worst pain you have ever had.

  • What makes it feel worse or better

  • What pain relief you used, when you used it, and how well it worked

  • If you had any side effects from pain medicine 

Getting support

Pain after cancer can be very stressful. It may help to talk about your cancer recovery in a support group. Ask your healthcare provider for information about nearby support groups. You may also feel better by meeting with a counselor. Your healthcare provider can also refer you to a counselor. Make sure to talk with your family members, too. 

It’s important to work with your healthcare team to get good pain control. A team approach is often needed. Physical therapy and exercise can sometimes help. Pain specialists can help you, too. Keep in mind that you may have to try different treatments and even different medicines to find what works. You may have to take more than 1 medicine to get the relief you need. Talk with your healthcare providers about how pain affects your daily life. Work with them to get the pain control you need.

When to call your healthcare provider 

Call your healthcare provider for any of these:

  • Pain that gets worse

  • New or sudden pain

  • Pain relief methods are no longer working

  • Pain is keeping you from taking care of yourself or doing the things you need to do

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Preeti Sudheendra MD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2021
© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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