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About cancer pain

Coping with cancer

This page is about cancer pain. There is information about


What pain means

Pain is usually a sign that something is wrong – that you have an illness or injury to your body. When there is damage to any part of your body, your nervous system sends a message along nerves to your brain. When your brain receives these messages, you feel pain. Nerves transmit all pain in this way, including pain caused by your cancer.

If you have a lot of pain it can be frightening and make you think that your cancer must be growing. But the amount of pain you have does not necessarily relate to how advanced your cancer might be. A very small tumour that is pressing on a nerve or your spinal cord can be extremely painful. Yet a very large tumour somewhere else may not cause you any pain at all.

Having pain after successful treatment doesn't necessarily mean that your cancer has come back. Some people get pain after cancer treatment such as surgery or radiotherapy. This pain can start or get worse some months or years after treatment. It is due to the nervous system rewiring itself after nerves have been damaged. The nerves then send pain signals. This type of pain often does not respond to ordinary painkillers, and other ways of treating pain then need to be used.

Pain may not be related to your cancer. It is understandable to worry about this. But remember that sometimes pain may be due to common causes of aches and pains, such as arthritis, headaches, constipation or digestive problems.


Not all cancers cause pain

Many people with cancer do not have pain. This is because cancers do not have any nerves of their own. A growing tumour can press on nerves near to where it is growing and that is what causes pain. Between 3 and 5 out of 10 people with cancer (30 to 50%) will have some sort of pain. With advanced cancer, pain is more likely. Advanced cancer means the cancer has spread or come back since it was first treated. Between 7 and 9 out of 10 people with advanced cancer (70 to 90%) will have pain.

It is possible to relieve all pain to some extent with the right treatment. With good pain control, most people should be able to be free of pain when they are lying down or sitting. The best way of controlling pain depends on what is causing it. The first step is to tell your doctor or specialist nurse that you have pain.


How pain affects you

Pain can affect you physically and emotionally. It is a very individual experience and feels different from one person to another. What is very painful and disturbing for one person may not affect another person so much. 

Everyone’s pain is unique and needs to be treated individually. What works for you may not help someone else. So an individual treatment plan to control your pain is very important. Try to write down as much detail as possible about your pain, such as

  • What it feels like – stabbing, aching or burning
  • Where it is – in one place, or spread around an area
  • How it comes on – suddenly or gradually
  • What relieves it – heat, cold, changing position, massage
  • How often you have it – always, or does it come and go

Gathering information like this helps the doctor or specialist nurse find out what is causing the pain and the best way of treating it. There is detailed information about measuring and describing your pain in the treating cancer pain section.


Getting help with pain

Don't be afraid to tell your doctor or nurse that you have pain, no matter how mild or severe it feels to you. The earlier you get treatment for pain, the easier it is to get it under control. 

At any stage of your cancer you have a lot to deal with. Having pain too can make things harder for you, both emotionally and physically. Many people with cancer are scared that they will become addicted to painkillers and so don't ask for help. It is very rare for people taking painkillers for cancer to become addicted to them and it is important that your pain is controlled. Some painkillers can have side effects. If you have pain, let your doctor or specialist nurse know so that they can help you.

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Updated: 10 February 2015