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Managing Pain During Cancer

Man at the beach is relieved of pain

Pain is one of the most common and complex symptoms experienced by cancer patients. Not only can cancer itself can cause pain, but treatments for cancer, such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation, can also cause pain.

Cancer pain can have a major impact on quality of life. It can affect a person’s physical, emotional, psychological, and social health. If you have cancer and you are dealing with pain, it is important your medical providers have the training and knowledge to find and treat cancer-related pain.

The Supportive Oncology and Survivorship (SOS) service at Huntsman Cancer Institute has a team of experts specially trained in treating cancer-related pain and its many side effects. Pain doctors, nurse practitioners, palliative care specialists, psychiatrists, medical oncologists, social workers, and nurses work with patients to manage cancer-related pain using medicine and non-medicine treatments.

I’m worried about taking opioids because I don't want to get addicted.

Any patient who is prescribed opioids is closely monitored by our team. We frequently visit with patients to assess their pain, medication use, and side effects. We also ask patients to complete a "pain management agreement." In this document, patients agree to take controlled pain medications as prescribed, store them in a safe place, and only receive controlled substance medications from SOS medical providers (except in the event of another illness, injury, or surgery).

It is also important to understand that addiction is very different from physical dependence and tolerance. Physical dependence happens when your body gets used to a certain medicine and quickly stopping or lowering the medication causes stress to your body. This is also known as withdrawal.

Physical dependence is a normal and expected response to taking opioids. When you don’t need the medicine anymore, your pain management providers will help you slowly lower the dose to give your body time to adjust.

Tolerance is a process where your body adapts to taking a medication in such a way that the drug has less of an affect over time and you may require higher doses to achieve the same response.

Addiction is a behavioral disease characterized by overuse, misuse, or compulsive use of a medicine despite negative impacts on your physical health or relationships.

I don’t want to be part of the opioid problem.

It’s true that there is a major problem in the United States with people misusing opioid medications. But when used as prescribed, opioids can be very appropriate for treating moderate to severe cancer-related pain. Uncontrolled pain can affect you physically, emotionally, and psychologically. When cancer pain is under control, patients can better handle cancer treatment such as chemotherapy and radiation, have improved quality of life, and live longer.

What are the biggest side effects of taking opioid medications?

These are the most common side effects:

These are some other possible side effects:

  • Nausea
  • Itchy skin
  • Dizziness

Most side effects get better over time. Download our factsheet about the side effects and risks of opioid use.

Taking too much opioid medicine can be dangerous. That is why it is very important to take pain medicine only as prescribed. If you still have pain after taking the prescribed amount of medicine, talk to your doctor.

Is medicine the only way to control my pain?

No. Many complementary and integrative health treatments have been shown to reduce and help manage pain:

  • Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Heat and ice
  • Gentle stretching and movement
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Meditation
  • Imagery
  • Distraction

Many of these treatments are available to our patients.

  • The Wellness and Integrative Health Center provides massage, acupuncture, and movement classes like tai chi and yoga to help manage side effects including pain.
  • The Mind-Body Skills Group helps patients learn mindfulness and meditation skills to reduce stress and pain, restore well-being, and feel calm and relaxed.

Other treatments, such as nerve injections, nerve surgery, and pain pumps, can also help manage pain. Your pain doctor can discuss whether these options may be right for you.

Even severe cancer pain can usually be treated. If you are experiencing cancer-related pain, ask your health care team for a referral to SOS, or call the SOS patient coordinator at 801-213-4246.

Cancer touches all of us.