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Overcoming cancer pain

Cancer treatments for pain relief

Wednesday 13 February, 2019

Cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy can reduce pain by helping to remove its cause. Cancer treatment aimed at relieving pain, rather than curing the disease, is called palliation or palliative treatment.

Depending on the cancer, and the location and nature of the pain, the treatments below may be used specifically for pain management.


Some people may have an operation to remove part or all of a tumour from the body. This may be a major, invasive operation or a relatively minor procedure. Surgery can help relieve or improve pain caused by tumours pressing on nerves or obstructing organs.

Examples include unblocking the bile duct to relieve jaundice, which can occur with pancreatic cancer, or removing a bowel obstruction, which can occur with ovarian or bowel cancer. See Understanding Surgery.

Radiation therapy

Also known as radiotherapy, this treatment uses a controlled dose of radiation, usually in the form of x-ray beams, to kill or damage cancer cells so they cannot grow, multiply or spread. This will cause tumours to shrink and stop causing discomfort. For example, radiation therapy can relieve pain if cancer has spread to the bones, or headaches if cancer has increased the pressure in the brain.

Usually only one or two sessions of radiation therapy are needed. It can take a few days or weeks before your pain improves. You will need to keep taking your pain medicines during this time. The dose of radiation therapy used to treat pain is low, and the treatment has very few side effects other than tiredness for a while. See Understanding Radiation Therapy.

Drug therapies

Drug therapies may be used for an extended period of time to control the cancer's growth and stop it spreading. The drugs reach cancer cells throughout the body. This is called systemic treatment, and includes:

  • chemotherapy - the use of drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells
  • hormone therapy - the use of synthetic hormones to stop the body's natural hormones from helping some cancers to grow
  • targeted therapy - the use of drugs to attack specific molecules within cells that make cancer grow and spread
  • immunotherapy - treatment that triggers the body's own immune system to fight cancer.

In some cases, drug therapies can shrink tumours that are causing pain, such as a tumour on the spine that cannot be operated on. By shrinking a cancer that is causing pain and other symptoms, drug therapies can improve quality of life.

In other cases, drug therapies can reduce inflammation and relieve symptoms of advanced cancer, such as bone pain. They can also be used as maintenance treatment to try to prevent the cancer coming back. See Understanding Chemotherapy, Understanding Targeted Therapy and Understanding Immunotherapy.

Expert content reviewers:

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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