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Cancer treatments to reduce your pain

Palliative treatment is treatment that aims to reduce or stop symptoms rather than cure your cancer. You might have some side effects from palliative cancer treatments. But the aim is to make you feel better. So, your cancer specialist will try to choose treatments that have as few side effects as possible.

Cancer treatments can help to reduce pain by shrinking a tumour and reducing pressure on nerves or surrounding tissues. After these cancer treatments, you might be able to cut down on your painkillers.

But it can take several weeks before you get the full benefits of the treatments. So, you’ll need to carry on taking your painkillers in the meantime.

Treatments you might have

Treatments that can help include:

Chemotherapy or targeted cancer drugs

Chemotherapy means using anti cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. Targeted cancer drugs work by ‘targeting’ those differences that help a cancer cell to survive and grow.

Chemotherapy or targeted cancer drugs can shrink many types of cancer to reduce symptoms such as pain.

Hormone treatments

Hormone treatment blocks or lowers the amount of hormones in the body to stop or slow down the growth of cancer. Hormone treatments can shrink some types of advanced cancer such as:

  • breast
  • prostate
  • womb

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy destroys the cancer cells in the treated area by damaging the DNA within these cells. Radiotherapy can give very good long lasting pain control for certain types of cancer pain such as bone pain.

Radiofrequency ablation

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) uses heat made by radio waves to kill cancer cells.

Your doctors might recommend RFA if you can’t have surgery to treat your cancer. This could be because:

  • you have several tumours
  • the position of the cancer makes surgery difficult (for example, if it is near a major blood vessel)
  • you can’t have a general anaesthetic

Radiofrequency ablation can help with your symptoms, such as cancer pain.

Surgery

In some situations, doctors can use surgery to control pain. A surgeon might carry out an operation to take away as much of a tumour as possible.

This is called debulking. It can relieve pain by relieving pressure. It may also prevent complications developing, such as a blocked bowel.

Injections into the spine

Injections into the spine are not a cancer treatment in themselves. But you might have injections into your spine for pain control. 

This might be called an epidural, intrathecal anaesthetic or spinal anaesthetic. It can give very good pain control.

To give painkillers in this way, doctors put a small tube (called a catheter) is put into your back. It goes into the area around the spinal cord. The painkiller is continuously injected through the tube into your spine.

This may be the best way to control your pain if you’re having a big operation for your cancer. It will give good pain control for up to 24 hours after your surgery.

This method is not a first choice for treating cancer pain that’s not related to surgery. But it can help some people who find that painkilling tablets or injections are not controlling their pain.

It needs a highly experienced doctor (anaesthetist) to do the procedure. It also needs highly trained nurses to watch you very closely afterwards. Not all hospitals, hospices or pain clinics can provide this service.

Intrathecal pump

Sometimes a small pump is put into the fluid around the spinal cord. It’s called an implanted intrathecal pump and it goes in your back area just below the waist. You can stay at home with the pump. A cancer specialist can inject painkillers into the pump every few weeks.

Doctors usually use this type of treatment where other methods of pain control have not worked.

Last reviewed: 
16 Feb 2018
  • Cancer Pain Management

    British Pain Society, 2011

  • Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine (5th edition)

    NI Cherney and others

    Oxford University Press, 2015

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