Pain, which can range from mild to severe, is the most common symptom leading people to seek medical attention. Both our experience and research tell us that when pain is controlled, quality of life improves dramatically. Uncontrolled pain, on the other hand, creates unnecessary suffering, "not only by causing immediate physical suffering, but also by increasing the anxiety level and the fear about the future and future problems."1 Pain may even shorten life.
Types of Pain
Pain can be acute or persistent:
- Acute pain is short-term and usually ends after the source of the pain is addressed and the painful area heals—for example, incision pain after surgery.
- Persistent pain is present frequently or constantly most of the day and persists beyond the period of time when the painful area is expected to heal. In persistent pain, the cause of the pain may not be able to be addressed.
A critical step is reporting pain to your doctor. To learn how to talk with your doctor about pain, see NCI’s booklet: Pain Control. If your doctor is not trained in cancer pain management and is unable to help you relieve your pain satisfactorily, consider asking for a referral to a healthcare professional trained in managing cancer-related pain. These professionals often have a point of view that pain is an “emergency”, encouraging patients to report unmanaged pain promptly. In addition to medical oncologists (who are usually very knowledgeable about cancer pain management), doctors and nurses trained in palliative care are experts in helping people manage symptoms related to chronic illnesses such as cancer. These palliative care specialists often work in hospice or palliative care programs.
Our fears are masks of old hurts and not necessarily premonitions about the future.
Myths and Truths about Pain
Fears about pain and pain treatment are common. Perhaps your fears come from experience with someone with cancer whose pain caused suffering, and you are afraid that will happen to you. Many people are also afraid that if they take opiates such as morphine, they will become addicted or will be confused, incoherent or “out of it” all the time. Many may fear that if they take an opiate now, it won’t work later if the pain gets worse.
Addiction Risk Factors
As with other diseases, risk factors are associated with higher likelihood of addiction:2
A realistic goal is to manage the pain so that it is tolerable and frees you up to achieve your own goals of living well.
Pain and Suffering
Unrelieved physical pain can cause unnecessary suffering. In addition to physical pain, people also experience emotional, mental, social and spiritual pain. These types of pain may also lead to suffering.
Opiates are currently the mainstay of treating moderate to severe cancer pain. We can often further manage pain with other kinds of medication, such as anti-inflammatories, anticonvulsants and antidepressants. Sometimes, chemotherapy, surgery or radiation therapy may also be part of your pain-treatment plan.
Many non-drug techniques—complementary therapies—can also be remarkably helpful in controlling your pain. Persistent pain often is best managed with an integrative approach, combining conventional medications and treatments with complementary approaches. The Society for Integrative Oncology clinical practice guidelines list integrative therapies with evidence for addressing pain:4
Integrative Plans, Protocols and Medical Systems
|For more information about plans and protocols, see our Integrative Plans and Protocols page.|
- Plans, protocols and programs
- Traditional systems
Written by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, and reviewed by Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on October 19, 2018.
- Cancer.net: Pain
- American Society of Clinical Oncology: Managing Cancer-Related Pain: A Guide for Patients, Families, and Caregivers
- SIO clinical practice guidelines:
- Deng GE, Frenkel M et al. Evidence-based clinical practice guidelines for integrative oncology: complementary therapies and botanicals. Journal of the Society for Integrative Oncology. 2009 Summer;7(3):85-120.
- Deng GE, Rausch SM et al. Complementary therapies and integrative medicine in lung cancer: diagnosis and management of lung cancer, 3rd ed: American College of Chest Physicians evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Chest. 2013 May;143(5 Suppl):e420S-e436S.
- Greenlee H, DuPont-Reyes MJ et al. Clinical practice guidelines on the evidence-based use of integrative therapies during and after breast cancer treatment. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2017 May 6;67(3):194-232.
- Jonathan Simon: Acupuncture in Cancer Care
- Michael Lerner: Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer
- Keith I. Block, MD: Life over Cancer: The Block Center Program for Integrative Cancer Treatment
- Michele Schuman: The Benefits of Medical Massage
- Donald I. Abrams, MD, and Andrew T. Weil, MD: Integrative Oncology, 2nd Edition
- Raymond Chang, MD: Beyond the Magic Bullet: The Anti-Cancer Cocktail
- University of Arizona: Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine Online Courses
- American Society of Clinical Oncology: Cancer.Net
- United Patients Group: Informative Videos on Medical Cannabis & Marijuana
- Wayne Jonas, MD: Your Healing Journey: A Patient’s Guide to Integrative Breast Cancer Care
- September 2018 Issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine
- National Cancer Institute: Cancer Pain Control: Support for People with Cancer