The Dangers of Not Treating Cancer Pain


Pain attacks your ability to be positive and focus on your treatment.(ISTOCKPHOTO)Cancer can cause pain in many ways—a tumor pressing on nearby organs and nerves, nerve damage caused by chemotherapy and surgery, or side effects from cancer treatments. Research shows that cancer cells may also release chemicals that cause inflammation and pain in the area around the cancer.

Whatever the cause, untreated pain has long-term effects—both physical and psychological—and can also get in the way of your cancer treatment.

Caregivers Can Be Cancer Painkillers

spouse-caregiver-chronic-pain spouse-caregiver-chronic-pain More about cancer pain

"Often patients are in so much pain they can't even get to the hospital for treatment," says Kathleen Foley, MD, a neurologist and former chief of the Pain and Palliative Care Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

"Getting the pain under control will allow you to take care of yourself and your family," says Dr. Foley.

It's hard to stay positive without pain control

Cathy Bueti, 38, from Brewster, N.Y., found that chemotherapy after a mastectomy gave her joint pain. Already suffering hot flashes from menopause and recovering from the relatively recent loss of her husband, she was thrown into a tailspin.

"You're so scared and you're going through all these emotions, and then on top of it you're getting these aches and pains in your joints."

When her regular chemotherapy sessions (scheduled every three weeks for six months) began to cause her significant pain, it was hard to stay positive. "You knew it was going to be a while before you felt better," says Bueti, "And just as you're feeling better, boom, it's time to go back and get zapped again with the chemo."

Next Page: Treating your pain is part of treating your cancer [ pagebreak ]Treating your pain is part of treating your cancer

The key is that there is treatment for cancer pain, and it's a fundamental part of the cure.

Pain increases the side effects and toxicity of the treatment, explains Timothy Moynihan, MD, a medical oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "If we can decrease the pain, our treatments will work more effectively and allow people to be more themselves," he says.

Persistence can pay off in pain relief

Finding the best way to contain Bueti's pain took a bit of trial and error. After her mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, her doctors first tried morphine and then Percoset, but the nagging side effects were hampering her recovery. Eventually her surgical pain and the joint pain to come with chemotherapy were reined in by Extra Strength Tylenol.

"It took a little while," she says. But Bueti was especially conscious of keeping her doctors in the loop: At the time of her treatment she was working as an occupational therapist at a rehabilitation facility, and she had seen first-hand how pain "can interfere with patients' therapy and getting better."

Alleviating those aches allowed Bueti to carry on with day-to-day tasks such as showering and dressing as well as resume activities such as walking and spending time with friends, which went a long way toward helping her "emotionally tolerate" her treatment. Not only were they good distractions, Bueti says, they also "provided a sense of normalcy for me and made me feel like I was still living."