Cancer pain management guide

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Pain can be one of the most wearing, draining and challenging symptoms for people living with or beyond cancer – it can interfere with sleep, with your ability to move and with your ability to enjoy life. If you are somebody who usually uses complementary therapies to manage your pain, you might be missing some of these treatments at the moment, so we wanted to cover some ways that you might be able to help manage your pain better.

A lot of people with cancer will never experience pain, but if you do, it can be there for a number of different reasons. The way you might best deal with your pain depends very much on what is causing it, so one of the first things to do, if possible, is to understand as much as you can about why your pain is there, and if you aren’t sure, to ask your medical team to explain this to you. There are many effective treatments, therapies and approaches that can reduce and treat pain, so finding the right one for your type of pain is absolutely the key to success.

Although pain can be caused by a cancer pressing on neighbouring tissues, blocking an organ or fracturing a bone, it’s very important to remember that pain doesn’t necessarily mean that your cancer is getting worse. Pain may be an effect of treatment, either during treatment or afterwards, and some post-treatment pain only develops many months after treatment is completed. It may also be nothing physically to do with your cancer, but might be related to stress (tension headaches or migraine), muscle tension (back or neck pain) or digestive symptoms (irritable bowel causing abdominal pain) associated with the emotional or psychological effects of the cancer diagnosis. It may also be caused by something else completely – people with cancer get pulled muscles, infections, arthritis and joint sprains too!

Whatever the cause of pain, it is often worsened – or even caused – by emotional stress such as depression, anxiety or tiredness. In this case, getting the right emotional help can be a huge part of your healing process.

Of course, for the reasons stated above, the type and intensity of pain experienced varies from person to person – including people with the same type of cancer. There is no template or set of rules around symptoms and therefore no one treatment approach that works for everyone. Sometimes this can cause concern for someone experiencing pain when others aren’t.

If you have pain, it’s important to let your medical team know (whether that is your nurse or doctor) so that they can diagnose, treat and help you to manage it effectively. The earlier you receive treatment for pain, the more effective it will be.

Tell your healthcare team about your cancer pain

It’s really important to tell your healthcare team if you are experiencing any pain in connection with your cancer or its treatments. Keeping a pain diary can help you to keep a record of your pain and better describe it to your doctors and nurses. We have made one for you to use at the hospital or with one of our doctor team.

Usually your doctor would also undertake a pain assessment, which might include some tests and investigations to work out the best ways to help you.

The best treatment approach could involve medication, physiotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, or complementary therapies such as massage, acupuncture, (mind-body therapies like mindfulness or hypnosis) or counselling.

Often a combination of a number of these approaches gives the best result and the fewest side-effects.

If you are somebody who usually uses complementary therapies to manage your pain, you might be missing some of these treatments at the moment, so we wanted to cover some ways that you might be able to help manage your discomfort at home.

  • If you usually manage your pain without medication by using complementary therapy, and you are now unable to do this, it might be worth trying some self-help techniques like self-massage or self-acupressure, or asking a partner or housemate to help.
  • Meditation, mindfulness and relaxation can be very helpful to reduce your experience of pain and break some of the vicious cycles associated with pain leading to tension and stress leading to heightened pain perception and more pain. The mindfulness app Headspace has a Pain Management pack and Penny Brohn UK clients can access a year’s free subscription by contacting us.
  • Using heat or cold to help relieve aches and pains. Warm baths or heat pads can be extremely useful in relaxing muscles and reducing joint stiffness, while ice packs can help relieve this where there is inflammation and swelling.
  • If inflammation is a significant cause of your pain, natural anti-inflammatories and remedies like turmeric, glucosamine, ginger, holy basil, omega-3-fish oils and devil’s claw along with an anti-inflammatory approach to eating may be helpful. Remember to check with your medical team about any possible drug or nutrient interactions if you are taking regular medication.
  • Equipment such as splints, walking aids, bed cradles, or special mattresses or cushions can help by supporting parts of your body. You can ask advice from your medical, nursing, physiotherapy or Occupational Therapy team about what equipment might be helpful to you.
  • Finding distractions such as reading, watching an interesting programme, listening to music, or chatting with friends can be great distractions.
  • If these simple measures are not working, ask your GP or hospital doctors for advice about the best treatment or medication for you. There are many newer types of painkiller which can be taken as tablets, liquid, gels, creams patches or injections, and which have fewer side effects than older medication. If you’re still finding it difficult to manage, or you are getting a lot of side effects from painkillers, ask for a referral to your local Palliative Care team who have great expertise in this area. Many people think the Palliative Care team is only there for people who are at the end of life, but they are specialists in symptom control and pain management experts and are happy to advise on the best treatments with the fewest side effects. A single treatment of radiotherapy can be one of the most effective and long-lasting treatments for cancer in the bone, so ask your oncology team about this if it hasn’t already been offered.

If you need further advice on the information above, or any other aspect of your ability to live well with cancer during this time, please call our bookings team on 0303 3000 118 or email If necessary, they can arrange a telephone or video consultation with our doctor team. Please note that our doctors cannot prescribe medicines or arrange tests for you, but they can give you advice on safely combining standard care with lifestyle and complementary treatment approaches that may help you. 

Download our pain management diary template to help manage your pain independently or to gather information before speaking to your doctors.