There’s no simple answer to if cancer causes pain. Being diagnosed with cancer doesn’t always come with a prognosis of pain. It depends on the type and stage of the cancer.
Also, some people have different pain-related experiences with cancer. Not all people react the same way to any particular cancer.
As you consider the potential of pain accompanying cancer, keep in mind that all pain can be treated.
Pain associated with cancer is often attributed to three sources:
- the cancer itself
- treatment, such as surgery, specific treatments, and tests
- other medical conditions (comorbidity)
The primary ways that cancer itself can cause pain include:
- Compression. As a tumor grows it can compress adjacent nerves and organs, resulting in pain. If a tumor spreads to the spine, it can cause pain by pressing on the nerves of the spinal cord (spinal cord compression).
- Metastases. If the cancer metastasizes (spreads), it can cause pain in other areas of your body. Commonly, spreading of cancer to the bone is particularly painful.
Cancer surgery, treatments, and tests can all cause pain. Although not directly attributable to the cancer itself, this pain associated with cancer typically includes surgical pain, pain from side effects, or pain from testing.
Surgery, for example to remove a tumor, can result in pain that can last days or weeks.
The pain lessens over time, eventually going away, but you might need your doctor to prescribe medication to help you manage it.
Side effect pain
Treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy have side effects that can be painful such as:
- radiation burns
- mouth sores
- peripheral neuropathy
Peripheral neuropathy is pain, tingling, burning, weakness, or numbness in the feet, legs, hands, or arms.
Some cancer testing is invasive and potentially painful. Types of testing that may cause pain include:
- lumbar puncture (removal of fluid from the spine)
- biopsy (removal of tissue)
- endoscopy (when a tube-like instrument is inserted into the body)
Comorbidity is a way of describing a situation in which two or more medical disorders are occurring in the same person. It’s also referred to as multimorbidity or multiple chronic conditions.
For example, if someone with throat cancer and arthritis of the neck (cervical spondylosis) is feeling pain, the pain could be from the arthritis and not the cancer.
The one constant in cancer pain is the need to clearly communicate your pain to your doctor so they can provide an appropriate medication that delivers the best possible pain relief with minimal side effects.
One way your doctor determines the best treatment is through understanding your type of pain, such as acute, persistent, or breakthrough.
Acute pain typically comes on quickly, is severe, and doesn’t last for a long time.
Chronic pain, also called persistent pain, can range from mild to severe and can come on slowly or quickly.
Pain that lasts for more than 3 months is considered chronic.
This type of pain is unpredictable pain that can happen while you’re regularly taking pain medication for chronic pain. It typically comes on very quickly and can vary in intensity.
Other ways to communicate the type of pain to your doctor include answering the following questions:
- Where exactly does it hurt? Be as specific about location as possible.
- What does the pain feel like? Your doctor might prompt you with descriptive words such as sharp, dull, burning, stabbing, or aching.
- How severe is the pain? Describe the intensity — is it the worst pain you’ve ever felt? Is it manageable? Is it debilitating? Is it just noticeable? Can you rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being barely perceptible and 10 being the worst imaginable?
Your doctor will most likely ask how the pain is impacting your daily life such as possible interference with sleep or typical activities like driving or working at your job.