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How You Can Cope with Cancer Pain

The simplest things – getting to the bathroom, eating or even sleeping – can become ordeals when you have cancer and suffer from chronic pain. And if you’re a cancer survivor, the pain can spark fears that the disease has returned or that something new is wrong.

Managing this pain can be key to protecting mental well-being and a creating a better quality of life.

Common Cancer Pains

Cancer pains generally come from two sources: the cancer itself or the treatment. With cancer, the pain often isn’t felt in the affected organ. Instead, you may initially feel a general discomfort. But as the tumor grows, it will eventually damage or compress nearby nerves, creating pain somewhere in the body. Pain in the bones may also indicate a cancer that has spread from another part of the body.

Pain can also come from treatment, including:

  • Surgery. You will typically experience pain in the days or weeks following surgery. Lingering phantom pain can also be encountered in cases where a body part is removed.
  • Radiation therapy. This can cause painful side effects – including burns, scars and inflammation – in areas that are treated. Radiation directed at the mouth, throat, intestines or bladder can cause irritation.
  • Chemotherapy. These treatments sometimes cause peripheral neuropathy, a type of nerve damage that leads to pain, numbness, tingling or weakness in the hands and feet. It often fades after the treatment, but can lead to long-term issues. Painful sores in the mouth, throat and other areas of the digestive tract are possible.
  • Diagnostic tests. Some of these procedures, including surgical biopsies to remove part or all of a tumor, can be painful.

Managing Cancer Pain at Home

When considering ways to manage pain, you might first think of doctor-prescribed pain killers. But there are things you can do for chronic pain that don’t involve a prescription. The earlier you can get started, the better your results can be.

There are a variety of anti-inflammatory and pain-management drugs (including ibuprofen and aspirin) you can buy from your local drug store. At safe doses, they are often effective at keeping pain at bay. Capsaicin cream (derived from a chemical compound found in chili peppers) also can be useful.

Some patients also have success with therapy with counselors who specialize in chronic pain management, encouraging meditation and other coping mechanisms. Stretching, massage, heat or cold also can bring relief.

Medical Treatments for Cancer Pain

For many, however, effective pain relief can only be accomplished with the help of more powerful narcotics, which can be critical to recovery. If you aren’t eating or sleeping well (or maintaining your muscles) it handicaps your body’s ability to fight disease.

Medication plans usually start with anti-inflammatory and non-steroidal drugs. For nerve pain, options often include drugs developed to fight epilepsy. Antidepressants may also be appropriate. If your pain symptoms do not respond to these options, more powerful opioids may be the best bet.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for some cancer patients to resist taking more powerful pain medications. They worry about feeling tired or not being able to think clearly. Others feel like the pain is almost a rite of passage that accompanies the disease – something that must be borne as part of the recovery. And there’s the growing problem of patients being reluctant to ask for pain pills after hearing frightening stories about opioid addiction.

One of the keys is understanding that opioid addiction is more of a behavioral issue and that very few people get addicted while using it for cancer treatment. Patients are started at the lowest doses capable of providing pain relief and are monitored closely for signs of addiction. And then as soon as possible, that medication is tapered off.

Be Your Own Advocate

One of the most important things you can do is let your care team know how you feel – and what pains you are experiencing.

Being open and honest with your doctor, nurses and therapists can make a substantial difference in your experience. Sometimes a small symptom can prompt changes in your treatment plan and new strategies for making you more comfortable.

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