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 reduce 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 medicines can have painful side effects. If the medicines cause nerve damage, you may experience burning, numbness, tingling, or shooting pain most often in the fingers or toes. Some chemotherapy medicines can also cause mouth sores, headaches, muscle pains, and stomach pains.

The goal of pain control is to try to prevent pain, and to control pain that can't 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 healthcare provider or pharmacist about your pain.

Contact your healthcare provider at the first signs or symptoms of pain. Side effects like neuropathy may be dependent on the dose or duration of treatment. 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. This way 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?

  • Medicine history and profile. List the names of the medicines you are currently taking and their effectiveness.

For chronic pain, take your pain medicine on a regular schedule (by the clock). Don't skip doses. If you wait to take pain medicine 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 medicines.

You may find that your usual pain can be controlled by medicine. Occasionally a more severe pain will “break through” for a short time. In some cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe a short-acting medicine to use when this happens.

Many different medicines and methods are available to control cancer pain. If you are in pain and your healthcare provider has no further suggestions, ask to see a pain or palliative care specialist. Or, have your healthcare provider talk with a pain specialist. A pain specialist may be an oncologist, anesthesiologist, neurologist, neurosurgeon, another healthcare provider, or pharmacist.