Every year on February 4th, the whole world takes a moment to think about cancer on World Cancer Day.
For many people, cancer has been on their minds and in their lives for years, either for themselves or for a loved one. World Cancer Day takes one day out of the year to get as many people as possible to raise cancer awareness around the globe.
Around the world, 8.2 million people die of cancer, four million of whom die prematurely because of it. In addition to shortening life expectancy, cancer can also damage quality of life. Many cancers (and their treatments) are accompanied by chronic pain, further complicating this complex and very personal illness. One out of every three cancer patients will experience some type of cancer pain. This World Cancer Day, it is important to raise awareness of cancer pain and potential treatments.
Cancer pain can arise as a result of the cancer itself. Certain types of cancers release chemicals into the body as they grow, causing pain. This pain can include:
- Achy, swollen joints
- Sore muscles
- Skin sores
- Sores in the mouth
- Upset or sore stomach
Cough, fatigue, and disruption of bowel habits can add to the discomfort of a cancer patient.
Treatments for cancer can also cause pain. Radiation and chemotherapy are very taxing to the body and can cause nausea, skin sores, muscles aches and fatigue, and painful joints. Radiation kills cancerous tissue but can also damage healthy tissue, including nerves. The side effects can include pain in the irradiated area long after treatments are completed.
Cancers that require surgery have their own set of painful challenges, most notably regarding breast cancer and mastectomy. Removal of breast tissue may damage nerves and tissues in the chest and underarm area. Fully 60% of women who undergo a mastectomy experience chronic pain in the three months following surgery, with up to half of those women continuing to experience pain one year after surgery.
Chronic pain due to breast cancer and its treatment is not only physical but also mental and emotional. The daily pain is a constant reminder of the cancer and its treatment. Women experiencing this are also haunted by the specter of cancer’s possible return. The daily stress of pain is difficult enough, but when accompanied by the possibility that cancer may return, it can be extraordinarily difficult to cope with.
Fortunately, researchers have found several ways to minimize the possibility of pain due to cancer-related mastectomy.
Changing anesthesia protocols
Researchers at the American Society of Anesthesiologists report that changing the manner of sedation during surgery can help prevent post-operative pain. When doctors provided women undergoing surgery lidocaine, post-operative pain was significantly decreased.
In the study, 12% of women who were given lidocaine experienced chronic pain as compared to 30% of women in the control group. These results were not significant when it came to women who received breast implants or were treated with radiation; both groups experienced about the same rates of chronic pain in those cases.
Another study using a different anesthetic (propofol) cut the risk of post-operative chronic pain in half.
Both of these substitutions were especially successful when anesthesia was “layered”; that is, a local anesthetic was used in addition to a general anesthetic and a nerve block. The nerve block serves as a regional anesthesia that thoroughly numbs the area being operated on, and it reduced the risk of chronic pain by 33%.
Letting the sun shine in
In addition to helping to prevent chronic pain by changing anesthesia protocols, researchers are finding that adding more vitamin D into the diet can help prevent and treat the pain of breast cancer. Pain is one of the main reasons that cancer patients discontinue chemotherapy or other treatments. Researchers supplemented half of the study group with the recommended daily allowance of vitamin D, plus a 50,000 unit vitamin D supplement once a week. The vitamin D group also took calcium to help with absorption and prevent bone loss.
The vitamin D group reported significantly less pain, along with less negative impact from the cancer treatment. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to everything from dementia to leukemia and can itself cause bone pain. Supplementing cancer treatments with vitamin D is an easy and generally low-risk way to minimize the chances of chronic pain due to cancer.
Incorporating complementary therapies
World Cancer Day has as its mission to raise awareness of cancer around the globe. One of cancer’s major impacts is on the quality of life of the patient. Battling a life-threatening illness comes with not only physical pain and stress but also emotional and psychological pain. Even the simple act of going to the doctor constantly and keeping up with treatment regimens can be taxing to the mind and body, eventually resulting in real, physical pain as the stress becomes buried deep in the joints and muscles.
Complementary therapies are becoming the standard of care as evidence grows as to their efficacy in treating both the mental and physical aspects of cancer pain. There are many different types of complementary therapies to choose from, including:
- Acupuncture: This ancient medical practice from China utilizes hair-thin needles inserted at different pulse point or meridians in the body to stimulate the flow of energy. Modern science explains the effects of acupuncture as working with the Gate theory of pain. Acupuncture produces a nerve signal that closes off the pain signal being sent previously. Acupuncture has been shown to be particularly effective in treating breakthrough cancer pain rapidly and without side effects.
- Massage: Massage for cancer patients has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. Because heightened levels of these three states plays a significant role in the perception of pain, it stands to reason that massage may also help reduce the pain felt by cancer patients.
- Yoga: While there are few reliable studies that deal specifically with yoga’s ability to reduce cancer pain, there are many that show that mindfulness and yoga increase a cancer patient’s quality of life significantly in terms of improved mood, positive outlook, and reduced stress. Staying physically active and fit also help the body to better handle cancer treatments.
Other complementary therapies for cancer pain can include t’ai chi, hypnotherapy, and aromatherapy. While evidence as to their efficacy regarding relief of cancer pain is limited, there is ample research pointing to an improved quality of life for cancer patients, which also may include pain relief.
This World Cancer Day, take some time to spread the word. Get involved in the fight against cancer by sharing your story and encouraging others to do the same.