As a cancer patient, your top priority is to survive, so you may not think about mentioning any pain associated with your disease or treatment to your care team.
“Many patients aren’t aware of the medications and procedures that can improve their quality of life,” says Salahadin Abdi, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of Pain Medicine. Education and communication are key to ensure you get all of the cancer pain management help you need from your care team.
Here, Abdi shares advice for discussing your cancer pain so that you can find relief.
Speak up about your cancer pain
It’s important to know you’re not alone in experiencing cancer pain. “Pain is very common, even in the early stages of the disease,” Abdi says. He advises patients not to wait to speak up.
As cancer progresses, the pain associated with the cancer itself or the treatment becomes more significant. That’s why it’s important to notify your care team early on to ensure a better quality of life.
Include your family in cancer pain management
Cancer pain affects not only the cancer patient, but also the patient’s family. Sometimes patients feel as though people don’t believe their pain exists so they feel isolated. “I like when patient and the caregivers come to see me together so that everyone’s on the same page, everyone is educated and understands cancer pain,” Abdi says.
In addition, caregivers should stay open to what patients have to say. Showing compassion and just listening to them is part of the healing processes, Abdi says.
Communicate your cancer pain management goals
When meeting with your cancer pain care provider, be open about your expectations. You and your doctor should set a realistic goal for your pain relief to help guide decision-making. It’s possible your goal will change as your treatment plan changes, but here are a few examples:
walking with reduced discomfort
sleeping through the night
returning to work
“It’s about being functional, enjoying life and doing things that you normally like to do,” Abdi says.
Finding relief for your cancer pain
There are many ways to address the various types of cancer pain, and not every approach uses medication.
For mild pain, your care provider may suggest non-opioids such as acetaminophens or ibuprofen.
For more intense pain, you may also be prescribed opioids such as morphine or codeine. Some patients fear addiction to opioids, but Dr. Abdi says those cases are rare if you follow your doctor’s recommendation and it shouldn’t discourage you from discussing your concerns with your doctor.
Other types of cancer pain include swelling, tingling and burning, which all have medications available to help relieve your discomfort.
There are also treatments techniques that don’t use medication. Examples of non-drug treatments include:
ice and/or heating pads
prayer and meditation
transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator (TENS)
Your doctor may prescribe one of the methods above or a combination, depending on the type of pain, your goals and the location and severity of your pain.
Address psychosocial issues, too
Many times, physical pain isn’t the only side effect that patients experience. Many chronic pain patients also experience some degree of depression, anxiety or fear. If you feel blue, anxious or worried, Abdi recommends speaking with your care team about these issues no matter how minor they may seem.
“You’re not in this alone. Telling your care team about your anxiety or fear will help us relieve it that much sooner and improve your quality of life,” Abdi says. At the MD AndersonPain Management Center, our pain psychologist can help you develop strategies to cope with the emotional and psychological challenges of cancer treatment and pain. So can our Psychiatric Oncology Center and your social work counselor.