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A cancer diagnosis does not mean that you will have pain. Still, many people with cancer do have pain at some point. Good pain control is part of proper cancer care.

Managing pain may result in better treatment outcomes, so patients should talk to their healthcare team about their pain right away. Left untreated, pain can:

  • Limit the ability to work, exercise, sleep and perform everyday tasks
  • Weaken the immune system, making it harder to heal and fight infection
  • Reduce appetite
  • Lead to anxiety and depression
  • Reduce intimacy with a partner

Your doctor should assess your pain and ensure that it's managed throughout your treatment and recovery. Pain management often includes a combination of medications and nondrug options to provide relief. If you are having trouble getting your pain under control, ask to see a pain or palliative (supportive) care specialist. 

Don't Delay Seeking Pain Care

You should never accept pain as a normal part of having cancer. If you or someone you love is in pain, tell a member of your healthcare team right away. Treating pain as soon as it starts, or even stopping pain before it begins, is key. No matter when you have pain, it’s important to remember that all pain can be treated and most pain can be controlled or relieved.

For more information, access the free LLS fact sheet, Pain Management

Acute and Chronic Pain

There are two main types of pain: 

  • Acute pain comes on quickly and lasts a brief time; it can range from mild to severe. This pain is nature’s signal that causes you to change a harmful behavior or seek medical attention. Acute pain is due to a known cause, such as damage resulting from surgery or an injury (like a fall). You might need pain medicine to treat acute pain. But once the event is over or the injury has healed, the pain usually goes away.
  • Chronic pain doesn’t go away, or comes back often. It lasts beyond the usual healing time or more than a few months. Chronic pain can begin suddenly, or slowly become a problem. It may be constant, come and go, or get worse over time. Left untreated, it can suppress your immune system and slow healing.

Breakthrough Pain

Breakthrough pain happens even though you’re taking pain medicines on a regular schedule to control chronic pain. In other words, the pain “breaks through” your regular pain management schedule. Breakthrough pain often comes on suddenly and lasts a short time. It may happen several times a day. Many people with chronic pain also have breakthrough pain.

Assessing and Tracking Pain

Pain assessment is an important part of every medical appointment. Talk about any pain you have so your healthcare team can help manage it. You play the most important role in your pain assessment. Pain cannot be measured like your weight, blood pressure or temperature—only you can describe your pain.

Accurately telling your healthcare team about your pain will help them work with you to develop a pain management plan. Honest and direct communication with your healthcare provider is important. Be as specific and detailed as you can about your pain. See the free LLS Pain Management fact sheet for tips on how to describe pain.

As part of your pain assessment, a member of your healthcare team will ask you to “rate” your pain. One of the most common tools is a scale on which you rate your pain by choosing a number from 0 to 10. This is called the “numeric rating scale.” A zero means you have no pain and a 10 means you have the worst pain you can imagine.

Keeping a record of your pain on a daily or weekly basis can help you and your healthcare team better understand and manage your pain. It can be hard to remember how pain has affected your everyday life, so it helps to write it down when it happens. Some ways to keep track of your pain include using a calendar, a journal or a computer spreadsheet. Find the way that works best for you and stick to it.

    To download lists of suggested questions to ask your healthcare providers about pain and its treatment, click here.

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