Caring for someone in pain

Saturday 1 September, 2018

You may be reading this because you are caring for someone with cancer-related pain. Caring for someone who is in pain can be very difficult and stressful. It's natural to feel upset and helpless at times - it can be distressing to watch someone you love suffer.

This section answers some common questions carers might have. To find out more about carers' services, call Cancer Council 13 11 20. You can also get support and advice from Carers Australia (call 1800 242 636 or visit carersaustralia.com.au) or find services through the Carer Gateway (call 1800 422 737 or visit carergateway.gov.au). See Caring for Someone with Cancer.

Questions you may like to ask

What if they ask for more pain medicine?

Only the person with cancer can know how much pain they feel. If you have been using a pain scale together, this can help you both communicate about the need for extra doses. The person with cancer may be experiencing breakthrough pain and may need a top-up dose. If this occurs regularly, they should see their doctor again for advice on managing it.

If you're still worried the person with cancer is taking or wanting to take too much medicine, talk with their doctor about the dose they can safely have and other ways to help manage the pain.

Should I keep opioids locked up?

As with all medicines, it is necessary to keep opioids away from children, perhaps in a high cupboard. If a member of your household or a visitor has a drug-dependence problem, it is safest to keep the opioids in a secure place.

Can a person taking opioids sign legal documents?

When someone signs a legal document, such as a will, they must have capacity. This means they must be aware of what they are signing and fully understand the consequences of doing so. If they lack capacity, the documents can be contested later.

If a person's ability to reason is affected by taking opioids, it makes sense to delay important decisions until the impairment has passed. Ask your GP or specialist to assess whether the person with cancer is fit to sign a legal document or talk to a lawyer about this before the document is signed.

When should I call the medical team?

Call a doctor or nurse for advice if the person with cancer:

  • becomes suddenly sleepy or confused
  • hasn't had a bowel motion for three days or more
  • is vomiting and cannot take the pain relief
  • has severe pain despite top-up doses
  • is having difficulty taking the medicine or getting prescriptions filled
  • experiences other symptoms that the treatment team has mentioned, such as hallucinations with particular drugs.

What if they lose consciousness?

If the person with cancer becomes unconscious suddenly, call 000 immediately. Do not give opioids to an unconscious or very drowsy person.


Reviewed by: Dr Tim Hucker, Clinical Lead, Pain Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and Lecturer, Monash University, VIC; Carole Arbuckle, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Anne Burke, CoDirector, Psychology, Central Adelaide Local Health Network, SA, and President Elect, The Australian Pain Society; Kathryn Collins, Co-Director, Psychology, Central Adelaide Local Health Network, SA; A/Prof Roger Goucke, Head, Department of Pain Management, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, Director, WA Statewide Pain Service, and Clinical A/Prof, The University of Western Australia, WA; Chris Hayward, Consumer; Prof Melanie Lovell, Senior Staff Specialist, Palliative Care, HammondCare Centre for Learning and Research, Clinical A/Prof, Sydney Medical School, and Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Health, University of Technology Sydney, NSW; Linda Magann, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Palliative Care and Peritonectomy Palliative Care, St George Hospital, NSW; Tara Redemski, Senior Physiotherapist, Gold Coast University Hospital, Southport, QLD.

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