Having cancer does not mean that you
have to live with pain. Cancer and some of the treatments for it can cause
pain. But most people who have cancer are able to manage their pain well.footnote 1

  • Cancer pain can almost always be controlled. Only you know
    how you feel and how much pain you have. Tell your
    health care team what your pain feels like and what works and does not
  • Don’t wait for pain to get bad. Your pain medicine will work
    best if you use it when you first notice pain, before it becomes
  • If you are taking pain medicine regularly for cancer pain, have a plan (and medicines on hand) for breakthrough pain. This is sudden and intense pain that can happen while you are already taking pain medicine.
  • The risk of becoming addicted to pain medicines is
    very small. Do not let this fear stop you from getting the pain relief you
  • Managing your pain can mean treating other problems, too. Uncontrolled cancer pain can lead to anxiety, sleep problems, or depression.

How can I control the pain caused by cancer?

Keep track of your pain and your treatments

doctor needs all the information you can give about what your pain feels like.
Your doctor needs to know how your treatment is working or not working. It may
be easier to give your doctor information if you write it down. Use a daily
diary to
rate your pain. Write down what drugs you are taking
and how well they are working. Write down any other methods you are using to
control your pain.

Pay attention to the details of your pain so
you can tell your doctor. Is it burning? Throbbing? Steady? How long does it
last? Take your written information and your questions with you when you see
your doctor.

Use a calendar or a
pain control diary (What is a PDF document?) to keep track of your treatment. Write down how strong your
pain is and when it comes and goes. Most doctors use a “0 to 10” scale to
measure pain. On this scale, “0” means no pain and “10” means the worst
possible pain.

It is easy to get
confused about medicines when you are in pain and are looking for something to
help you feel better. You may have prescriptions from more than one doctor.
Keeping a written
medicine record (What is a PDF document?) can help you and your doctors work together.

Stay on top of your pain

Your pain will be harder
to control if you let it get worse before you take your medicine. Make the most
of your pain medicines by following these rules:

  • Take them on time (by the clock).
  • Do not skip a dose or wait until you think you need
  • Be prepared for breakthrough pain. You may find that taking
    your medicine works most of the time, but your pain flares up during extra
    activity or even for no clear reason. This is called breakthrough pain. Your
    doctor can give you a prescription for fast-acting medicines that you can take
    for breakthrough pain.
  • Ask one of your doctors to be your team
    leader. It is best to have one doctor in charge of all your medicines. If more
    than one doctor prescribes pain medicine, make sure they talk to each other
    about it.

Manage the side effects

Pain medicines may cause
side effects. For example, opioid pain relievers may cause drowsiness,
constipation, nausea, and vomiting. Some anti-inflammatory drugs, including
aspirin, may cause stomach upset or bleeding. Before you start taking a drug,
ask your doctor about the possible side effects.

There are things
you can do to manage some side effects.

  • Home treatment for nausea or vomiting
    includes eating clear soups, mild foods, and liquids if you feel nauseated.
    Watch for and treat early signs of dehydration. Older adults can quickly become
    dehydrated from vomiting.
  • Home treatment for constipation includes making sure that you drink enough fluids and include fruits, vegetables, and fiber in your diet each day. Do not use a laxative without first talking to your doctor.

Complementary medicine

Complementary medicine
is the term for a wide variety of health care practices that may be used along
with standard medical treatment. These therapies are helpful in managing pain for some people.

Most of these therapies have not been subjected to the same degree of
rigorous scientific testing for safety and effectiveness that standard medical
treatments must go through before they are approved in the United States. Be
sure to talk with your doctor about which therapies might be best for

Behavioral therapies

  • Biofeedback is a method of consciously
    controlling a body function that is normally controlled unconsciously, such as
    skin temperature, muscle tension, heart rate, or blood
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a type of counseling that can help you cope with pain by
    modifying certain thought and behavior patterns.
  • Relaxation exercises can help reduce tension and stress.

Physical therapies

  • Tai chi, yoga, and other forms of movement can help you keep your strength, flexibility, and mobility.
  • Heat and cold treatments relieve sore
    muscles and decrease pain.
  • Massage helps reduce tension and pain, improves
    circulation, and encourages relaxation.

Other therapies

  • Acupuncture is
    a form of traditional Chinese medicine. It is done by inserting very thin
    needles into the skin at certain points on the body. Acupuncture may help relieve pain.footnote 2
  • Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of
    aroma-producing oils (essential oils) extracted from a plant’s flowers, leaves,
    stalks, bark, rind, or roots. These oils are mixed with another substance, such
    as oil, alcohol, or lotion, and then applied to the skin, sprayed in the air,
    or inhaled.
  • Healing touch is the conscious
    influence of one person on another, without physical means of intervention, to
    benefit the recipient’s physical or emotional well-being.
  • Meditation is the practice of focusing your attention
    to alter your state of consciousness, usually directed toward feeling calm and
    having a clear awareness about your life.

For more information on these therapies, see the
Complementary Medicine.



  1. National Cancer Institute (2013). Pain PDQ – Patient Version. Available online:
  2. National Comprehensive Cancer Network (2013). Adult cancer pain. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology, version 1.2013. Available online:


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD – Internal Medicine
Adam Husney, MD – Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD – Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Jimmy Ruiz, MD – Hematology, Oncology

Current as ofMay 3, 2017