When cancer treatments are used for pain control

Cancer treatments can help relieve pain caused by cancer. They include surgical and medical treatments.

  • Surgery can be used to remove part or all of a tumour. This reduces pain by relieving pressure on organs or a nerve. Surgery may involve inserting a stent (a hollow tube) if you have a blockage in a tube-shaped organ such as the gullet. This relieves the obstruction and can reduce pressure.
  • Radiotherapy can be used to shrink a tumour. A special type of radiotherapy known as Radioisotope therapy can also be used to control bone pain.
  • Chemotherapy and targeted therapies reduce pain by shrinking the tumour.
  • Hormonal therapy may be used to treat certain cancers and help reduce pain.
  • Nerve blocks relieve pain by blocking pain messages from getting to the brain.
  • Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) uses heat to destroy cancer cells. It’s sometimes used to relieve bone pain caused by small secondary bone tumours.

Your doctor or specialist nurse will be able to advise you about which method of pain control is most suitable for you.

Controlling pain with cancer treatments

Sometimes, surgical and medical treatments that are used to treat cancer can also be used to help relieve cancer pain.


Surgery

Some people may have an operation to remove part, or all, of a tumour. This can help to relieve pressure on organs or a nerve. Sometimes, laser treatment can be used to reduce the size of a tumour. Or a surgeon can insert a stent. This is a narrow tube that is put inside a duct or tube-like organ, such as the gullet. It can help to reduce pressure and relieve a blockage by keeping the duct or organ open. These treatments can sometimes help to relieve or improve cancer pain.


Radiotherapy

This treatment uses high-energy rays such as x-rays. It is sometimes used to shrink a tumour. It can reduce pain and other symptoms. Radiotherapy can be used to control pain in the bones – especially the spine, thigh bones (femur), pelvis and ribs.

Usually only one or two sessions of radiotherapy are needed. The treatment doesn’t work straight away. It usually takes 7–10 days to reduce your pain. You will need to keep taking your other painkillers during this time. The dose of radiotherapy used to treat pain is low, and the treatment has very few side effects other than tiredness for a while.

Sometimes, a special type of radiotherapy known as radioisotope therapy may be used to help control bone pain. This can be used if there is pain in more than one bone. We have more information about this.


Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy and targeted therapies can shrink tumours to help reduce pain. Your doctor can tell you whether they may help you. Ask how likely they are to work and what the side effects may be. This will help you decide whether the treatment would be helpful for you.


Hormonal therapy

Hormones can be used to treat cancer. They may also help to reduce pain for some types of cancer, such as breast and prostate cancer. Your doctor can tell you whether hormonal therapies may help your pain.


Nerve blocks

Nerve blocks may help relieve pain by preventing pain messages getting to the brain.

Nerves can be blocked using drugs such as local anaesthetics (sometimes given with steroids) or other chemicals such as alcohol or phenol. Local anaesthetics produce a short-lasting block. Although alcohol or phenol give a longer-lasting block, they are less commonly used because of the side effects they cause.

Nerve blocks involve specialist techniques and are carried out by a pain specialist. This is usually an anaesthetist. Your GP or hospital specialist can refer you to a pain team.


Other treatments for bone pain

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) uses heat to destroy cancer cells. It can help to relieve pain that hasn’t responded to radiotherapy. It is usually only used to treat small secondary bone tumours.

There may be other treatments that can help strengthen bones and relieve bone pain. You can ask your doctor or specialist nurse about these. They will be able to tell you more.