Pain and Chemotherapy
The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the type of chemotherapy and the amount given. Anticipating and managing side effects can help to minimize them and provide the best possible experience for the person receiving chemotherapy.
As each person's individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his or her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild, or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins.
Chemotherapy drugs can have painful side effects. If the drugs cause nerve damage, you may experience burning, numbness, tingling, or shooting pain most often in the fingers or toes. Mouth sores, headaches, muscle pains, and stomach pains can also result from some chemotherapy drugs.
The goal of pain control is to prevent pain that can be prevented, and to treat pain that cannot be prevented. It is possible that you will not have pain from chemotherapy treatments, but if you do, you can take steps to relieve it. The first step is to talk with your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist about your pain. Contact your health care provider at the first signs or symptoms of pain—side effects like neuropathy may be dependent on the dose or duration of treatment, and the pain can worsen with ongoing treatment. Give them as many details as possible. The National Cancer Institute recommends that you describe your pain to your family and friends so that they can help communicate with your caregivers if you are too tired or in too much pain to talk to them yourself. Be sure to describe the following:
Location of the pain. In what parts of your body are you experiencing the greatest pain?
Description of the pain. Describe what the pain feels like. Is it sharp or dull, throbbing or steady?
Describe the intensity of the pain. How strong is the pain? Use a numerical scale, with 0 being no pain and 10 being the greatest pain.
Length of the pain. How long does the pain last?
What makes the pain better or worse? What types of activities or positions make the pain better or worse? What are your ideas about what is causing the pain?
Medication history and profile. List the names of the medications you are currently taking and their effectiveness.
For chronic pain, take your pain medication on a regular schedule (by the clock). Do not skip doses. If you wait to take pain medication until you feel pain, it may be more difficult to control. To lessen tension and reduce anxiety, it may also be helpful to use relaxation exercises when you take your medication.
You may find that your usual pain can be controlled by medication, but occasionally a more severe pain will “break through” for a short time. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe a short-acting medication.
Many different medications and methods are available to control cancer pain. If you are in pain and your doctor has no further suggestions, ask to see a pain or palliative care specialist, or have your doctor consult with a pain specialist. A pain specialist may be an oncologist, anesthesiologist, neurologist, neurosurgeon, another doctor, nurse, or pharmacist.
- Foster, Sara, RN, MPH
- MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician