Cancer or cancer treatment often causes cancer pain. Cancer pain affects your quality of life. It can make certain cancer symptoms feel worse. It may increase the impact of treatment side effects. Cancer pain management is an essential part of cancer treatment.
Cancer pain is pain from cancer or cancer treatment. Not everyone who has cancer has pain, but most people with cancer are likely to experience pain. Studies show pain is one of the most common and most feared symptoms of cancer.
Cancer pain may be mild, moderate or severe. It may take several forms, such as feeling like a sharp stabbing pain that comes and goes, a tingling or burning sensation or a persistent ache.
Cancer pain affects your quality of life. It can make certain cancer symptoms and treatment side effects feel worse. It may increase your risk of developing depression and anxiety. That’s why pain management is an essential part of cancer treatment.
Pain is personal, meaning what’s painful for one person may not be painful for another person. Some pain happens when cancer affects your bones, nerves and soft tissues. Some people with cancer have what providers call “phantom pain” or “referred pain.” Types of cancer pain include:
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Cancerous tumors that are growing or spreading in parts of your body often cause cancer pain. For example, a tumor that spreads to your bones may put pressure on your nerves, causing painful nerve damage. A tumor growing in your pancreas may stretch organ walls and cause pain. Other cancer pain causes include:
That’s hard to say. Pain is very personal. One person’s mild pain may be moderate pain for someone else. That said, one analysis of cancer pain research indicates pancreatic cancer causes the most pain. Data show 72% of people with pancreatic cancer reported cancer pain. Between 80% and 100% of people with advanced cancer reported cancer pain.
Managing cancer pain is a very important part of treating cancer. Healthcare providers may use medication, medical procedures or surgery to ease cancer pain. To treat cancer pain, providers take time to understand your pain. They may ask you to:
It’s important to remember that no one expects you to “put up” with your cancer pain. Telling your healthcare provider that you’re in pain isn’t a sign of weakness.
It’s easier to control pain when it starts rather than waiting until your pain is more severe. (Providers call this “staying ahead of pain.”)
If you have pain, don’t hesitate. Speak up when you’re hurting so your providers can help you. They’ll work with you to develop a plan that minimizes the impact pain may have on your daily life and that best manages your pain.
That depends on the source of your pain. For example, you can have pain from a tumor pressing on nerves or an organ wall. If that’s your situation, your provider may use chemotherapy or radiation therapy to shrink the tumor. They may also do surgery to remove the tumor, eliminating the pain. Other treatments include medication to stop or reduce pain, medical procedures to block pain signals and neurological surgery techniques.
Neurological surgery techniques may include:
Healthcare providers may use several different pain medications to stop or reduce cancer pain:
These medications include:
Opioids may include:
Your healthcare provider may prescribe opioids to help ease your cancer pain. You may worry about opioid use disorder or becoming dependent on other cancer pain medications. You may wonder if taking cancer pain medication will make you feel out of control or confused. These are common concerns:
Healthcare providers may prescribe additional medications that may help with cancer pain or reduce the side effects of cancer pain medications. These medications may include:
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, treatments such as acupuncture and hypnosis may ease some types of cancer pain or painful cancer treatment side effects. These treatments aren’t substitutes for medical cancer pain treatment. If you have cancer, talk to your healthcare providers before starting any type of alternative or complementary treatment for cancer pain.
Applying heat and/or cold may help cancer pain:
Cancer pain can be hard to manage. It’s important that you take medication as prescribed to avoid severe pain. You should call your healthcare provider if:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you have cancer, you may be afraid you won’t be able to handle the kinds of pain that cancer or cancer treatment may cause. If you’re worried about coping with cancer pain, ask for help. Your healthcare team takes cancer pain very seriously. They believe every person with cancer has a right to pain relief. And they have many ways to reduce or even eliminate many kinds of cancer pain.
Tell your providers about any pain you’re experiencing. Like cancer itself, it’s easier for providers to treat cancer pain when it first starts than to manage severe cancer pain. Let your providers know you’re hurting. They’ll do everything they can to ease your pain.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/26/2022.
Learn more about our editorial process.