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Not everyone with cancer experiences cancer pain, but 1 of out 3 people undergoing cancer treatment does. If you have advanced cancer — cancer that has spread or recurred — your chance of experiencing cancer pain is even higher.
Cancer pain occurs in many ways. Your pain may be dull, aching or sharp. It could be constant, intermittent, mild, moderate or severe. Timothy Moynihan, M.D., a cancer specialist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., offers some insight into cancer pain, reasons why people might not get the pain treatment they need and what they can do about it.
What causes cancer pain?
Cancer pain can result from the cancer itself. Cancer can cause pain by growing into or destroying tissue near the cancer. Cancer pain can come from the primary cancer itself — where the cancer started — or from other areas in the body where the cancer has spread (metastases). As a tumor grows, it may put pressure on nerves, bones or other organs, causing pain.
Cancer pain may not just be from the physical effect of the cancer on a region of the body, but also due to chemicals that the cancer may secrete in the region of the tumor. Treatment of the cancer can help the pain in these situations.
Cancer treatments — such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery — are another potential source of cancer pain. Surgery can be painful, and it may take time to recover. Radiation may leave behind a burning sensation or painful scars. And chemotherapy can cause many potentially painful side effects, including mouth sores, diarrhea and nerve damage.
How do you treat cancer pain?
There are many different ways to treat cancer pain. The ideal way is to remove the source of the pain, for example, through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or some other form of treatment. If that can’t be done, pain medications can usually control the pain. These medications include:
These drugs can often be taken orally, so they’re easy to use. Medications may come in tablet form, or they may be made to dissolve quickly in your mouth. However, if you’re unable to take medications orally, they may also be taken intravenously, rectally or through the skin using a patch.
Specialized treatment, such as nerve blocks, also may be applicable. Nerve blocks are a local anesthetic that is injected around or into a nerve, which prevents pain messages traveling along that nerve pathway from reaching the brain. Other therapies such as acupuncture, acupressure, massage, physical therapy, relaxation, meditation and humor may help.
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