Treatment of cancer pain can be very complicated, depending on whether the cancer itself or a related condition is causing the pain.

To understand what can be involved with cancer pain and why it occurs, it’s important to understand the basics about what cancer is and how it behaves.

Cancer is the uncontrollable growth of abnormal cells in the body. These cancer cells destroy normal, healthy cells, causing a wide variety of serious conditions. Although cancer treatments continue to improve, cancer is still the second leading cause of death in the United States.

One out of every three people diagnosed with cancer will suffer from cancer pain, and those whose cancer is in the advanced stages have higher chances of suffering from cancer pain.

The pain may be dull, achy and constant, or it may be severe and periodic. The pain may result from the cancer itself as it destroys healthy tissue, or the growing tumor may place pressure on organs, nerves, bones or other tissues. Certain functions of cells and the rest of the body may also be impaired due to the destruction of healthy tissue.

Some cancers release chemicals as the cancer grows and spreads (metastasizes), and these chemicals can contribute to the patient’s pain. Cancer treatments and medications may also have painful effects.

Cancer pain symptoms, as well as related symptoms, can include:

  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Indigestion or upset stomach
  • Sores (such as on the skin)
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits
  • Problems swallowing
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Fever

As mentioned above, cancer treatments are also potentially painful for the patient. Chemotherapy is typically very unpleasant for cancer patients, and can cause sores, diarrhea, nerve damage, fatigue and other painful side effects. Radiation treatments have been known to cause burning sensations and leave scars that are painful. And a patient’s body may require a long time to heal following surgery, for example, a procedure to remove the cancerous growth and other tissue the cancer destroyed.

Other methods of treating cancer pain include over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, or opioids (codeine, morphine, oxycodone, methadone) to make the patient more comfortable.

Usually the treatment of cancer pain involves removing the cancer itself, using the therapies mentioned above and others. Although many of the treatments themselves will cause pain, the long-term goal is to save the patient’s life and restore as much of his or her quality of life as possible.

The best cancer treatment programs will take into consideration not just the patient’s physical condition, but also his or her mind-body connection — in other words, the patient’s sense of overall well-being. For this reason doctors will often design treatment plans that incorporate a number of different therapies, including nerve blocks, meditation, rest, acupuncture, acupressure, physical therapy, massage and others.

Image by Ed Uthman via Flickr