4 common cancer pain management myths

Nearly half of cancer patients experience pain caused by the cancer itself, cancer treatment or factors that aren’t related to cancer. When pain isn’t treated properly, it can interfere with sleep, quality of life and even how effective your treatment is.

Although cancer pain is common, there’s a lot of misunderstanding surrounding pain and the options for managing it. Here are four cancer pain management misconceptions Uzondu Osuagwu, M.D., commonly hears.

Myth: Pain is just a physical issue.

Truth: Pain can often coexist with anxiety, stress or depression. Patients who face these emotional side effects of cancer may experience chronic joint pain, back pain or gastrointestinal issues. So pain is not just a physical health issue.

“If pain is keeping you from doing the things you enjoy or impacting your sleep, you may experience mood changes or increased anxiety,” Osuagwu says. “It’s important to tell your care team about any pain and mental health challenges you’re experiencing, so they can recommend the right treatment plan for you.”

A therapist or social work counselor can help you navigate some of the causes of your stress and anxiety — such as transportation issues, financial and family concerns — and develop strategies to cope with them. If you’re an MD Anderson patient, you can request a referral to our pain psychologist for help addressing the causes of your pain.

Myth: Medication is the only option for cancer pain relief.

Truth: There are a lot of options when it comes to managing pain without medication. “The goal of pain management is to improve your quality of life,” Osuagwu says. “Whether you want to be able to simply get out of bed without pain or go on a trip with your family, there are many different options we can use help you achieve those goals.”

Physical therapy, oncology massage, deep breathing, yoga and acupuncture may relieve your symptoms. MD Anderson patients can access these clinical services and others through our Integrative Medicine Center.

If you have more serious pain that isn’t relieved by these techniques or medications, your doctor may recommend another approach, such as a neurolytic procedure. With this method, the nerves that are causing pain are chemically or thermally impaired to prevent them from sending pain messages to the brain. This treatment may relieve pain for several months, but the pain will return when the nerves grow back.

Spinal cord stimulation is another option for patients with severe pain, like a pinched nerve or chronic back pain. Using a battery-operated implant similar to a pacemaker, spinal cord stimulation targets pain with a mild electrical current that prevents nerve triggers from reaching the brain.

Myth: Once I’ve completed cancer treatment, my pain will stop.

Truth: It’s not always possible to reach a point where you have no pain. Depending on your type of cancer and treatment, some pain may never go away.

It’s important to speak with your care team often to discuss potential side effects you may experience during and after treatment – and when and how long you can expect these.

For example, many chemotherapy drugs — like cisplatin, taxol and vincristine – can cause neuropathy, which is numbness, tingling or shooting pain resulting from nerve damage. While most patients will have complete relief or experience only mild tingling after completing treatment, it can be difficult to predict how long nerve pain or neuropathy caused by cancer treatment may last. Unfortunately, neuropathy symptoms may not ever improve for some patients.

“While we may not always be able to make the pain go away, medications and physical therapy can help you maintain normal function,” Osuagwu says.

It’s important to work with your doctor to set a personal pain goal – that is, the level of pain you can manage and still perform your daily activities. Identifying your personal pain goal will help you and your health care team make decisions about your pain management options.

“Your ability to function in the context of that pain is what’s most important,” adds Osuagwu.

Myth: The only pain my care team can help manage is cancer pain.

Truth: You may have pain that has nothing to do with cancer but that affects your comfort during cancer treatment. This may include headaches, muscle strains, or something more severe like back pain or arthritis.

Most of the time, these issues can be treated along with the cancer. Ask your care team what you can take for these everyday aches and pains. Depending on the severity of your pain, your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxer or suggest a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug.  

“We’re here to make your experience as comfortable as possible,” Osuagwu says. “There’s no need to suffer. If you’re experiencing pain, we’re here to help.”

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.