From OncoLog, September 2013, Vol. 58,
House Call: Myths and Facts About Pain and Cancer
Patients have options for pain treatment
About 7 in 10 cancer patients experience pain at some point during
cancer treatment, but some patients are hesitant to take medicine for
their pain—often because they have been misinformed.
The following are common myths—and the facts that prove them wrong—about cancer pain and its treatment.
MYTH: All cancer patients live in pain.
FACT: Most cancer-related pain can be treated. Doctors can
prescribe narcotics (such as morphine, fentanyl, or hydrocodone) and
anti-inflammatory, antiepileptic, and antidepressant drugs to relieve
pain. These medicines are available in many forms such as pills,
liquids, and patches. If medicine alone does not work, nondrug
treatments such as massage, hypnosis, and breathing and relaxation
exercises can help. For patients with pain that cannot be treated with
medicine, other treatments like radiation therapy, nerve blocks, and
surgery are sometimes used to relieve pain.
MYTH: Pain means the cancer is getting worse.
FACT: Pain can occur for many reasons. Although more than
half of cases of pain in cancer patients are tumor related, treatments
like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery can cause pain. In addition,
pain can have a cause that is not related to the patient’s cancer.
Don’t forget, people without cancer also have pain.
MYTH: Patients who tell their doctor they are in pain may not receive their desired cancer treatment.
FACT: Doctors need to know all of a patient’s
symptoms—including pain—to provide the best treatment. Pain that goes
untreated can delay a patient’s cancer treatment because a patient who
has pain may need to visit the emergency room or be admitted to the
hospital to control the pain.
Uncontrolled pain can also delay a patient’s recovery. This delay
happens because pain causes stress, and long-term stress causes the
body to produce hormones that weaken the body. In addition, untreated
pain causes unnecessary suffering. Patients should tell their doctor if
they are in pain and describe their symptoms as specifically as
possible to receive the best treatment.
MYTH: Pain medicines will erase all pain.
FACT: Although doctors hope to relieve all of a patient’s
pain, the patient should not expect a complete absence of pain. Doctors
strive to relieve enough of the patient’s pain so that the patient can
go about daily activities and have the best quality of life possible.
Managed pain allows patients to spend less time in the hospital and
more time at home with loved ones.
MYTH: Patients become addicted to strong pain medicines.
FACT: Cancer patients who take narcotics to treat pain
have a very low risk of drug abuse and addiction. Only patients who
abused drugs before they had cancer have a high risk of becoming
Doctors will monitor patients very closely during treatment with narcotics. Patients should never take any pain medicine without consulting
MYTH: Pain medicines lose their effectiveness.
FACT: Over time, a patient’s body will become used to, or
tolerant of, a drug. Drug tolerance is a normal reaction, and doctors
can easily increase the dose of many drugs to control a patient’s pain.
If a patient is already taking the highest safe dose of a drug, doctors
may need to switch to a different drug.
MYTH: Pain medicines have uncontrollable side effects.
FACT: If patients have side effects from pain medicines,
other medicines or therapies can be given to treat those side effects.
For example, a common side effect of narcotics is constipation, which
can be easily corrected by adding laxatives or stool softeners to the
patient’s medicine regimen.
Cancer patients can avoid living in unnecessary pain. Pain treatment
options are available for patients with all types and stages of cancer.
“There is no cookie-cutter pain regimen. Each patient is an
individual,” said Rob Yates, a physician assistant in the Department of
Pain Medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Patients should consult their doctor to learn how to manage their pain.
— C. Wilcox
information, talk to your physician, visit www.mdanderson.org, or call askMDAnderson at 877-632-6789.
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