Pain can be a significant part of the cancer experience for many patients, some of whom are reluctant to take prescription opioids.
Some patients fear becoming addicted to medications such as morphine or are concerned about common side effects such as sedation, itching, constipation and even hormonal imbalances.
Brendan McGinn, MD, an assistant professor of anesthesiology specializing in pain management at Upstate, said side effects are easily treated, and cancer patients, especially, can obtain pain relief with appropriate opioid prescribing.
“In actuality one of the few indications for chronic usage of these medications is in the treatment of cancer pain,” he said.
People with cancer may feel pain from a tumor that physically compresses internal organs, nerves or bones, from surgical trauma or from the effects of chemotherapy or radiation. McGinn said psychological stress can also be a major factor contributing to pain.
McGinn emphasized that pain should be treated aggressively as soon as it becomes an issue and that staying ahead of pain is essential in helping to reduce its severity. He said studies have shown that having good control of pain can help cancer patients live longer.
Standard nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories such as Tylenol and ibuprofen are effective for joint and muscle pain related to cancer, while nerve pain that is more of a burning or tingling sensation may be treated with some antiseizure or antidepressant medication, McGinn said. However, severe pain, no matter what the cause, may require morphine or other types of opioids.
In addition to medications, interventions such as nerve blocks and various injections can be utilized to treat cancer pain. Meditation, acupuncture or comprehensive psychological support can also help. “These are all crucial therapies, and they’re often underutilized,” McGinn said.