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Life After Cancer: Managing Pain 

Pain is a common side effect of cancer and cancer treatment. But sometimes people have pain even after cancer is gone and treatment is over. This can cause problems with daily life and make it harder to function or enjoy things. It’s important to work with your healthcare team to get your pain treated after cancer. 

What causes pain after cancer treatment? 

Pain after cancer treatment can be caused by many things. For instance, it can be caused by scar tissue from surgery or radiation. Pain can be caused by damage to skin or organs from radiation or chemotherapy. Or you may have nerve damage that causes pain and tingling (neuropathy). In some cases, it may be hard to find the exact cause of your pain. 

Types of treatments for pain 

Some types of treatments may work better for you than others. You may use some of the same kinds of pain control you used during cancer treatment. For example, your health care provider may prescribe the same opioid medicine.           

  • Opioid pain medicines. These are strong medicines that control pain. They can be given in many ways, such as liquid, pills, and patches. These medicines have side effects, and can make you sleepy, confused, and make it hard to move your bowels. Your dose may need to change over time, depending on your side effects and how well your pain is controlled.

  • Non-opioid pain medicines. Other types of medicines may help ease your pain. These include acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, steroids, antidepressants, and aspirin. Make sure to take any of these only as directed by your healthcare team.

  • Transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS). This is a type of therapy that uses mild electric currents to help relieve some kinds of pain.

  • Cold or heat therapy. Cold can help lessen pain. Heat can soothe sore muscles. For cold therapy, place a cold pack wrapped in a thin towel for up to 10 minutes at a time to the area of pain. For heat therapy, place a heating pad wrapped in a thin towel on stiff or sore areas for up to 20 minutes at a time. Don’t use heat or cold on any areas that are numb, are at risk for swelling (lymphedema), or have poor blood circulation.

  • Acupuncture. This type of therapy uses very thin needles placed in certain areas of the skin. The needles are left in for up to 30 minutes and then removed. This can help relieve pain all over the body.

  • Hypnotherapy. A trained therapist can help you reach a state of relaxation that helps relieve pain.

  • Guided imagery. This type of therapy helps you create images in your mind to help lessen feelings of pain. You can do it anywhere.  

Talk with your healthcare team before using any of kind of pain relief method. They may advise you not to use certain things for your health and safety. They may also be able to find you a trained professional so you get the best possible therapy or treatment.                                                                                                                                                                              

If you are taking pain medicine 

If you are taking pain medicine, don’t take any other medicine, vitamin, or supplement without talking with your healthcare provider first. Some pain medicines interact with other medicines and supplements. This can cause serious problems. 

Some prescription pain medicines contain more than one type of medicine. For instance, you may be taking a combination of codeine and aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen. But you don’t know that, based on the name of the medicine. This means if you also take over-the-counter aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen, it could lead to an overdose. When you are taking prescription pain medicines, check with your healthcare team or pharmacist before taking any medicine you can buy in the drugstore. 

While you are taking pain medicine:

  • Take it exactly as prescribed. Don’t take more than the prescribed dose.

  • Be prepared for constipation and take steps to prevent it.

  • Don’t drive if the medicine makes you sleepy.

  • Don’t drink alcohol.

  • Don’t take any other medicine until you check with your healthcare provider or pharmacist first. 

If you want to try decreasing or stopping your pain medicine, get your healthcare provider’s help. Don’t just stop taking pain medicine. You may need to slowly stop taking it. Your provider can help you plan the best way to do this. 

Keeping a daily pain journal 

Writing down information about your pain every day will help your healthcare team treat it. It can also help you and your team see what’s working and what isn’t. Every day, write down:

  • When the pain starts and stops, or if it’s there all the time

  • Where the pain is in your body

  • What the pain feels like: sharp, aching, throbbing

  • How mild or severe it is, on a scale of 0 to 10. Zero is no pain, and 10 is the worst pain you have ever had.

  • What makes it feel worse or better

  • What pain relief you used, when you used it, and how well it worked

  • If you had any side effects from pain medicine 

Getting support 

Pain after cancer can be very stressful. It may help to talk about your cancer recovery in a support group. Ask your healthcare provider for information about nearby support groups. You may also feel better by meeting one-on-one with a counselor. Your healthcare provider can also refer you to a counselor. Make sure to talk with your family members, too. 

It’s important to work with your healthcare team to get good pain control. Pain specialists also can help you. You may have to try different medicines or take more than one medicine you get the relief you need. 

When to call your healthcare provider 

Call your healthcare provider for any of the below:

  • Pain that gets worse

  • New pain

  • Pain relief methods are not working

Online Medical Reviewer: Cunningham, Louise, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2016
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.