What are the side effects of cancer pain treatment, and what can you do about them?
Each pain treatment may be accompanied by its own unique side effects. For example, radiation treatments may cause redness and a burning sensation of the skin. And, depending on what part of the body the radiation is applied to, the radiation may cause diarrhea, mouth sores or other problems, such as fatigue. Chemotherapy certainly can cause side effects, such as nausea, fatigue, infection and hair loss, but it can be effective in relieving pain if it shrinks the tumor. There are medications to help with nausea. Relaxation techniques also may help.
Pain medications each have their own unique side effects that should be reviewed with your doctor before taking them. One of the common side effects of the stronger pain medicines is constipation — common to opioids. It can be treated with appropriate bowel regimens as prescribed by your doctor, such as adding a stool softener and something to stimulate the bowels. Preventing constipation is much easier than treating it, so anyone who takes these strong pain medications should automatically begin a regimen to keep their bowels moving. Some of the other side effects of the strong pain medications include confusion, lethargy and sleepiness. The severity of these effects varies from person to person and commonly occurs with the first several doses. But once a steady amount of the medicine stays in your body, the side effects usually resolve. Hallucinations and behavior changes are uncommon.
The less potent pain medications actually may have more side effects, which also should be discussed with your doctor before taking them. For instance, common over-the-counter pain relievers might damage your kidneys, cause ulcers or increase your blood pressure. Aspirin can cause gastrointestinal bleeding, and acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) can cause liver damage if you take too much.
When should you discuss cancer pain with your doctor, and what points should you bring up?
Report any bothersome pain to your doctor. If there is a minor pain that goes away, don't worry about it. But if the pain interferes with your life or is persistent, it needs to be reported and should be treated. Although no one can guarantee that all pain can be completely eliminated, most pain can be lessened to the point where you can be comfortable.
It may help to keep track of your pain by noting how strong it is, where it's located, what makes it worse, what brings it on, what makes it better and anything else that happens when you have the pain. A pain-rating scale from 0 to 10 — with 0 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain you can imagine — may be helpful in reporting pain to your doctor. In addition, pay attention to what happens when you attempt to relieve your pain. If you take medicine, do you feel any ill effects from it? Note any ill effects of your pain medications. If it's a massage, hot or cold packs, or something physical that relieves the pain, those are important to report, too.
What steps can you take to ensure you're receiving adequate cancer pain treatment?
First, talk to your doctor or health care provider if you're having pain. Second, you and your doctor can set a goal for pain management and monitor the success of the treatment against that goal. Your doctor should track the pain with a pain scale, assessing how strong it is. The goal should be to keep the pain at a level with which you're comfortable. If you aren't achieving that goal, talk to your doctor. If you're not getting the answers you need, request a referral to a facility more skilled in the care of pain, particularly a major cancer center. All major cancer centers have pain management programs. For the most part, the medications and treatment for pain are covered by standard insurance.
Oct. 13, 2011
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- Grossman SA, et al. Cancer pain. In: Abeloff MD, et al. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier; 2008:565.
- Moynihan TJ (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Sept. 9, 2011.