You may experience pain related to your cancer, its treatment or other coexisting diseases. Pain assessment is an important part of any medical evaluation, and pain management is an important part of your care. Left untreated, pain can suppress the immune system, delay healing and lead to depression. When pain is accompanied by persistent depression — for example, if you feel depressed every day for two weeks — it's also important to seek medical advice. Depression is an illness that needs to be treated even when you're undergoing therapy for other conditions.
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.
Acute and Chronic Pain
There are two main types of pain: acute and chronic.
- Acute pain is nature's signal that causes you to change a harmful behavior or seek medical attention. If you step on a piece of glass or lean against a hot surface, you experience acute pain. Your body might react by increasing your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. Acute pain strikes suddenly, is not long lasting (less than three months) and ends once an injury has healed.
- Chronic pain, on the other hand, can last for months or longer. There's no useful purpose for chronic pain; it changes the nervous system and, therefore, is considered a disease. It can begin suddenly or gradually. The pain can be constant or come and go, and it worsens over time. Unlike acute pain, there's usually no stress response of increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. Left untreated, it can suppress the immune system and delay healing. Chronic pain places an emotional and physical burden on patients and caregivers.
The term "breakthrough pain" describes a brief, sometimes severe, flare of pain that a person who's taking pain medication may experience. In other words, the pain "breaks through" the regular pain medication schedule. Breakthrough pain can start as pain medication is wearing off, before the next dose is due or from a pain-producing activity or event (such as remaining in the same position for too long or making certain sudden movements). It can occur even when you follow the correct dose and schedule for your pain medicine. Tell your doctor if you have episodes of breakthrough pain.
Don't Delay Seeking Pain Care
It's essential that you seek pain treatment early to avoid additional health problems later. According to the American Pain Foundation and other experts, studies show that people with cancer may delay seeking the pain relief they deserve because they fear that addressing the pain may distract their doctor from treating the cancer. Furthermore, they:
- Falsely believe relief isn't possible and pain is an inevitable part of cancer
- May not want to acknowledge the pain because they're afraid it's a sign of disease progression or recurrence
- Worry about becoming addicted to pain medicine
- Mistakenly believe that early pain relief may mean the drug won't work in the future
- Want to appear strong and brave
Assessing and Managing Pain
Pain assessment is an important part of any medical evaluation. It's as important as measuring blood pressure, pulse, breathing rate and body temperature. Unrelieved pain may cause needless suffering and:
- Limit your ability to work, exercise, sleep and perform everyday tasks
- Weaken your immune system, making it harder to heal and fight infection
- Reduce your appetite
- Lead to anxiety and depression
- Place a strain on relationships
- Reduce intimacy with a partner
Before visiting your doctor, put together a list of any questions you may have about your pain and its treatment. For help in deciding what questions to ask, download a list of questions to ask your doctor about pain.