Cancer survivors may experience ongoing pain after cancer treatment. Chronic (or persistent) pain may be mild or severe, and may affect quality of life. The good news is that there are now many methods of treating it, and you do not have to live in pain. Be sure to tell your healthcare team if you are having pain.1

Pain felt after treatment may be of three different kinds: acute, chronic or breakthrough. Acute pain is severe, but goes away fairly quickly when the source injury heals. Pain is chronic if it lasts longer than three months; at this point it needs to be treated with either pain medicine, physiotherapy, or both. Breakthrough pain is pain that persists despite treatment.2

Chemotherapy can cause peripheral neuropathy, or nerve damage, which can have symptoms such as pain, burning, or a tingling sensation. This will typically go away once treatment ends, but if the nerves are permanently damaged, the symptoms may persist. Radiation can cause sores in the mouth or throat, burns on the skin surface, and scarring, all of which can lead to pain.3

Steroids taken as part of cancer treatment can lead to chronic bone pain. They weaken the bones and can lead to osteoporosis (see bone loss). Surgery can also contribute to chronic pain. Patients may experience chronic pain at the site of surgery. Surgical procedures can also lead to lymphedema, nerve damage, and other pain-causing complications.4

Treatment for pain involves medications as well as non-medical techniques:5

  • Medical treatments include opioids and non-opioid medications that can be administered orally in pill form, using a skin patch, suppositories, or injections.
  • Non-medical treatments may involve psychological approaches such as imagery and mindfulness, physical and occupational therapy, or integrative therapies such as acupuncture and massage.

Pain in cancer survivors is often multifactorial and should be addressed throughout the life of the patient.

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  2. Daeninck, P. et al. (2016). Canadian recommendations for the management of breakthrough cancer pain. Current Oncology, 23(2), pp. 96-108. DOI: 10.3747/co.23.2865