What is pain and what causes it?

Pain is an uncomfortable, unpleasant physical sensation. It happens when parts of the body are damaged. Around 5 in 10 people who have treatment for cancer (50%) have some pain.

How people feel and experience pain is very individual. Your pain may be different from someone else’s who has had the same treatment or type of cancer as you. Remember, having more pain does not necessarily mean the cancer is worse or more advanced.

You may have pain for a number of reasons. Cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy can damage body tissue and sometimes nerves, causing you to feel pain. These are physical causes. Your emotions can also affect pain levels. For example, feelings of anxiety or depression may make pain worse. Social or work pressures can also exacerbate pain.

If you have pain, it can almost always be reduced. It’s really important to let your doctor or nurse know as soon as you have pain. The earlier treatment is started for pain, the more effective it will be.

About cancer pain

Up to 5 in 10 people who have treatment for cancer (50%) have some pain. When cancer has come back or spread, about 7 in 10 people (70%) have pain. If you have pain, it’s important to tell your doctors and nurses so they can treat it.

Some people may not want to talk about their pain as they feel they are complaining. But the earlier treatment is given for pain, the more effective it is.

The way people feel and experience pain varies. Even people with the same type of cancer can have very different experiences. The amount of pain you have is not related to how severe your cancer is. And having pain doesn’t always mean that the cancer is advanced or more serious. Pain doesn’t always get worse as the cancer develops. It is important to remember that cancer pain can almost always be reduced.

What is pain?

Pain is an uncomfortable, unpleasant physical sensation as well as an emotional experience. It happens when parts of the body are damaged. This damage irritates nerve endings, which then send a warning signal to the brain. The brain responds by making us feel pain or discomfort.

Pain is not only a physical sensation. Emotions can make the pain better or worse. If you’re anxious, you may feel more pain, and if you’re relaxed, you may feel less pain.

Causes of pain

People with cancer may have pain for a number of reasons.

Physical causes

The cancer may press on the tissues around it or on a nerve. Cancer treatments can also damage or injure tissues.

Surgery causes pain, as tissues are cut or damaged. Radiotherapy can also damage tissues. For example, radiotherapy can damage the skin in the area being treated. Chemotherapy can damage the soft tissues in the mouth, causing soreness. The pain usually goes away once the treatments are completed and the damaged tissues have healed.

Sometimes, surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy can damage nerves and lead to a type of pain known as neuropathic pain.

Pain isn’t always due to cancer. Other health conditions, such as arthritis or diabetes, can cause pain.

If you develop a new ache or pain, or another new symptom, you may worry that the cancer has come back. Or you may think it is getting worse or has spread. These aren’t necessarily the reasons for the pain.

It’s always best to tell your doctor about any new pain or symptom, so you can get the right treatment. Usually, the earlier treatment is started the easier it is to control pain.

Emotions and pain

Sometimes, emotional stress such as anxiety, depression and tiredness can make your pain feel worse. This doesn’t mean that cancer pain is completely due to your emotions. But it’s important to get the right help, and this may mean treating emotional stress as well as the physical causes of your pain.

Social effects on pain

Sometimes, social or work pressures that cause stress can make pain worse. For example, not being able to see friends or not being able to work can affect pain levels.

Back to Pain

Painkillers and how they are taken

There are different ways of giving painkillers, including by mouth or injection. Your medical team will find the right methods for your pain.