What is pain and what causes it?

Pain is an uncomfortable, unpleasant physical feeling. It usually happens when you have an injury or illness. Around half of the people who have treatment for cancer have some pain.

How people feel and experience pain varies. Your pain may be different from someone else’s who has had the same treatment or type of cancer as you. 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

Not everyone with cancer will have pain. Around half of the people who have treatment for cancer have some pain. When cancer has come back or spread, up to 9 out of 10 people (90%) have pain. If you have pain, it’s important to tell your doctors and nurses (healthcare team) so they can treat it. The earlier you have treatment for pain, the more effective it is.

Treating pain can help you feel better in lots of ways. It can give you more energy and help reduce anxiety. You’ll be more able to enjoy day-to-day activities with your family and friends.

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 feeling as well as an emotional experience. It is usually caused by an injury or illness in the body. Nerves in the damaged part of the body send warning signals to the brain, which responds by making us feel pain or discomfort.

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

Causes of pain

Physical causes

People with cancer may have pain for a number of reasons. The cancer may press on the tissues around it, such as a bone or a nerve. Sometimes pain can happen if the cancer stops parts of the body from working normally. For example, a cancer can block the bowel, which causes pain.

Cancer treatments can affect normal tissues in the body, sometimes leading to pain. This doesn’t usually last for long. Surgery causes pain, as tissues are cut or damaged. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy can also have an effect. For example, radiotherapy can damage the skin in the area being treated. And chemotherapy can affect the lining of the mouth, causing soreness and possibly ulcers. The pain usually goes away once the treatments are completed and the tissues have healed.

Sometimes surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy can also damage nerves and lead to a type of pain known as nerve 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. But 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 manage pain.

Emotional stress

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. We have more information about emotions and pain.

Social effects

Social or work stresses can also affect how you experience pain. For example, not being able to see friends or not being able to work can make pain feel worse.