Pain is a complex problem that has wide-ranging effects on your life. It can impair physical function and lead to further health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as interfering with your ability to enjoy life.
Pain is uniquely personal and everyone experiences it differently. How much pain you experience depends on the type of cancer you have, how advanced it is, where it is located, the types of treatments you have received/are receiving and your attitude regarding pain.
The truth is, pain is relatively common both during and after treatment, though patients don’t always discuss this with their healthcare professionals.
Unfortunately, it is often difficult to control. This blog is aimed at providing some safety and practical tips to help you through your pain, and its related concerns.
1. Understand pain terms.
In order to characterize pain, your treating team use common words to help them understand how it may be affecting you. These include terms such as ‘burning’, ‘throbbing’, ‘aching’, ‘pinching’, ‘stabbing’ and ‘electric shock’, amongst others.
Your treating team may also ask how intense your pain is (ranging from 0 (no pain) through to 10 (worst pain possible)), how often it occurs (e.g. continuous, every 6 hours, at night-time, on activity) and whether you get a flare-up of pain despite being on painkillers (which is known as ‘breakthrough pain’).
Thinking about your pain and understanding the questions
you may be asked by your clinician can help your doctor work out what’s causing it, and how best to fix it.
Tip 2: Know when to use pain relief.
When using pain relief, there are certain things you need to know. Talk to your doctor about when you should start taking pain relief medication, and ask how long it takes after taking medication for it to reach its maximal effect (as in, how long does it take for the medication to work ‘best’).
Generally speaking, people are given temporary pain relief that only last up to a few hours. Once you start using this medication very frequently (e.g. 3 or 4 times day) your treating team may then consider starting you on a longer-acting medication (e.g. one that lasts for 12 hours). In those cases, your treating team may then give you separate medication to take for temporary pain relief for ‘flare ups’ of pain.
A pain diary that documents how often you’re taking your pain medication can help when discussing whether the dose and type of medication you are using is working. In addition, try and make a note of potential triggers for your pain (that is, things that tend to make your pain worsen) as that information can be used to try and prevent things from escalating.
Tip 3: Be proactive.
It’s important to be proactive about pain relief. There’s no need to save pain-killers for when things are ‘really bad’. Often, pain is easier to control when medication is started before it gets to that point. It’s therefore important to remain engaged with your clinician to help guide you through the best management. If the pain-killers you are on do not work, don’t change the dose or medication unless you have been advised to do so.
Tip 4: Think outside the box.
There is consistent evidence to suggest that getting on top of pain requires a multimodal approach supported by an allied health team and your medical provider. On top of medicines that can help alleviate the pain, there are a range of non-medicine approaches that can assist.
Often, a variety of approaches may be required such as exercise, psychological interventions, education, sleep interventions, biofeedback and meditation. These approaches are best discussed with your clinical team to see what would work best for you.
Tip 5: Be safe.
If you experience any sudden changes in the type or severity of your pain, don’t dismiss them. There are lots of potential causes for sudden changes in pain, some of which are serious, so it’s best to discuss any such changes with your medical team.
Jeremy Lewin is a Medical Director at ONTrac at Peter Mac Victorian Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer Service , Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre
If you have any worries or concerns in relation to contents of this article please consult your medical team.