Defined by pain expert Margo McCaffrey, MSN, RN, FAAN, pain is, “whatever the experiencing person says it is, and exists whenever he says it does.” This certainly holds true in the treatment of pain associated with cancer. Approximately 30% to 50% of all people with cancer will experience pain while undergoing treatment and 70% to 90% of individuals with advanced cancer will have pain associated with the disease.
The good news is that cancer pain is completely manageable with a host of treatments that are readily available. The bad news is that many cancer patients are often under treated for pain due to a variety of common reasons.
Physicians treating cancer patients may focus solely on controlling or treating the disease and the accompanying pain is left untreated. Patients may minimize their pain symptoms or may think the pain is “normal” and neglect to inform the physician of this symptom. In other circumstances patients may fear becoming addicted to pain medications and therefore refuse to take them. These reasons, while understandable, are invalid and the current treatments available can help patients manage their pain.
Each cancer patient will experience different levels and areas of pain. There are three common types of pain associated with cancer. Acute pain usually sets in quickly and lasts only brief amounts of time. Chronic pain is consistent pain that sometimes worsens and lasts for long periods of time. Breakthrough pain occurs in chronic pain sufferers whose pain is normally controlled by medication. The plan for managing this pain is different for each individual. The goal is to provide the best pain relief while avoiding as many side effects as possible.
First-line pain medications are those medicines that are readily available over the counter or by a doctor’s prescription. First-line pain medications are used to treat mild forms of pain associated with cancer and include ibuprofen, aspirin and acetaminophen. These over the counter medications are not usually habit forming and can reduce inflammation in diseased tissue.