What are the side effects of cancer pain treatment, and what can you do about them?

Each type of treatment has its own side effects.

  • Surgery. Surgical removal of cancer can result in pain in the area of the surgery. Much of post-surgical pain is thought to be related to nerve injury that occurred during the surgery. People who have a limb or breast removed might feel pain as though the limb or breast is still present (phantom pain).
  • Radiation therapy. These treatments can cause redness and a burning sensation of the skin. Depending on what part of the body the radiation is applied to, it can cause diarrhea, mouth sores or other problems, such as fatigue.
  • Chemotherapy. Side effects can include nausea, fatigue, infection, hair loss and nerve pain (neuropathy). Medications can help ease these side effects. Relaxation techniques also might help.
  • Strong pain medications. One of the common side effects of opioids is constipation. It can be treated with stool softeners and laxatives recommended by your doctor. Preventing constipation is easier than treating it, so before you start taking opioids ask your doctor what you should take to keep your bowels moving.

    Other side effects of strong pain medications include nausea, vomiting and drowsiness. These commonly occur with the first several doses and go away after a few days of taking the medication.

  • Other pain medications. 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 or drink alcohol while taking it.

Discuss the possible side effects of any medication with your doctor before taking it.

How can you help your doctor understand your cancer pain?

If the pain interferes with your life or is persistent, report it. It might help to keep track of your pain by jotting down:

  • How severe the pain is
  • What type of pain (stabbing, dull, achy) you have
  • Where you feel the pain
  • What brings the pain on
  • What makes the pain worse or better
  • What pain relief measures you use — such as medication, massage, and hot or cold packs — how they help and any side effects they cause

Using a pain-rating scale from 0 to 10 — with 0 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain imaginable — might help you to report your pain to your doctor.

What steps can you take to ensure you're receiving adequate cancer pain treatment?

First, talk to your doctor or health care provider about your pain.

Second, you and your doctor can set a goal for pain management and monitor the success of the treatment. Your doctor should track the pain with a pain scale, assessing how strong it is. The goal should be to keep you comfortable. If you aren't comfortable, talk to your doctor.

If you're not getting the answers you need, request a referral to a facility skilled in the care of pain. All major cancer centers have pain management programs. The medications and treatment for pain are generally covered by standard insurance.

Oct. 10, 2017 See more In-depth