Not everyone with cancer will have pain, but many do.

What is pain?

Pain is an uncomfortable and unpleasant sensation and emotional experience when tissues in the body are damaged. 

Nerves in the damaged part of the body send warning signals to the brain, which makes you feel pain or discomfort. 

There are many safe and effective options for helping with pain.

If pain is not well-managed it can affect your ability to work, enjoy normal activities, and relate to family and friends.

Emotions and pain

Emotions can make the pain better or worse. If you’re anxious, you may feel more pain. If you’re relaxed, you may feel less pain.

Treating pain can help you feel better in a lot of ways. It can give you more energy and help reduce anxiety. You will be more able to enjoy life and sleep better.

Pain and cancer

If you have cancer, you may feel pain in your body. 

Pain can be a side effect of treatments or caused by the cancer pressing on bone, nerves or body organs. Infection can also cause pain.

The amount of pain you have is not related to how severe your cancer is. Pain doesn’t always get worse if a cancer grows and spreads. 

It is important to remember that cancer pain can almost always be reduced.

Talking to your doctor or your treatment team is the best way to get the help need to deal with pain.

Talking to your treatment team about pain

The earlier you let your treatment team know about the pain, the easier it is to treat.

Your treatment team will help you find the best pain relief for you. 

Tell your treatment team:

  • where and when you usually feel the pain
  • what the pain feels like, use words to describe it such as sharp, shooting pain, aching, gnawing or burning
  • rate your pain on a scale of one to ten
  • if your pain keeps you awake
  • what makes your pain better or worse, for example, changing position, using a hot-water bottle or ice pack

You might like to keep a diary of your pain to help track these things. Remember that you are the expert – only you know how you are feeling.

Visiting the pharmacy
Meeting with a doctor
Talking about options with a nurse
Top: Visiting the pharmacy | Bottom left: Meeting with a doctor | Bottom right: Talking about options with a nurse
Left: Visiting the pharmacy | Top right: Meeting with a doctor | Bottom right: Talking about options with a nurse

Finding the right pain relief for you

Some people with cancer have constant pain, so they need to take painkillers regularly to keep the pain under control.

Your treatment team will use what you tell them to find the right pain relief options for you.   

If you are prescribed pain medication or painkillers, follow your treatment team's instructions on how to take them. 

Mild pain

Mild pain is often successfully treated with painkillers called non-opioids. These include paracetamol and antiinflammatories such as ibuprofen.

Mild to moderate pain

Mild to moderate pain is treated with opioids through a prescription and include:

  • dihydrocodeine
  • codeine phosphate
  • tramadol

Moderate to severe pain

Moderate to severe pain is usually treated with strong painkillers called opioids such as:

  • morphine
  • fentanyl
  • oxycodone

With this type of painkiller, your doctor needs to find the most effective dose for you.

Two people with the same type of cancer may need different doses of the same medication, even if they’re at the same stage of their illness.

Side effects of pain medication

Let your treatment team know how the medication is working or if you have any side effects. 

Common side effects of pain medication include:

  • constipation
  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • drowsiness

Your treatment team can help you manage these side effects. It's a good idea to know how to reach your treatment team outside of their normal working hours. 

Other ways to relieve pain

Your treatment team will often give you other medications with the painkillers to help relieve pain. These include steroids and muscle relaxants.

For some types of pain, nerve-blocks and radiation treatment can be effective.

If you are spending a lot of time sitting or lying down, ask your treatment team for advice. You can get special equipment, such as a V-shape pillow or cushions, that might make it more comfortable.  

Some people choose to use complementary therapies which can help you feel better. 

Complementary therapies include:

  • acupuncture
  • massage
  • relaxation techniques

It is important to talk to your treatment team about any other therapies you’re using or thinking about because they may interfere with hospital treatment.

Need someone to talk to?
8:30 am to 5:00 pm Monday to Friday
0800 226 237 Information nurse

We know that going through cancer is tough and can raise many questions. You are not alone.

We have health professionals to answer your questions and provide the support you need. Get in touch

Last updated: December 22, 2022