Cancer treatments for pain relief

Tuesday 1 September, 2015

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On this page: Surgery | Radiotherapy | Chemotherapy | Hormone therapy

Cancer treatment can help reduce pain by shrinking a tumour and reducing pressure on nerves or surrounding tissues. Cancer treatment aimed at relieving pain, rather than curing the disease, is called palliation or palliative treatment.

Depending on the cancer you have, and the location and nature of your 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. This can help relieve or improve pain caused by tumours pressing on nerves or organs.

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


This treatment uses high-energy x-rays or gamma rays (radiation) to kill or damage cancer cells. This will cause tumours to shrink and stop causing discomfort.

For example, radiotherapy can relieve bone pain caused by the spread of cancer, and headaches caused by cancer that has increased pressure in the brain.

Usually only one or two sessions of radiotherapy are needed. It can take 7–10 days to reduce your pain. You will need to keep taking your other pain medicines during this time. The dose of radiotherapy used to treat pain is low, and the treatment has very few side effects other than tiredness for a while.


This treatment uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to kill cancer cells or slow their growth. In some cases, chemotherapy can shrink tumours that are causing pain, such as a tumour on the spine that cannot be operated on.

Hormone therapy

Some cancers grow in response to chemical messengers (hormones) in the body. Taking drugs that stop the body’s production of these hormones can often slow the growth of these cancers. The drugs may also shrink tumours that are causing discomfort, reduce inflammation, and relieve symptoms of advanced cancer, such as bone pain. Corticosteroids are a type of hormone that lessens swelling around a brain tumour. 

Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or see treatments and side effects for more information about surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. 

Reviewed by: Dr Melanie Lovell, Clinical Ass Prof, Medicine, Northern Clinical School, Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney, and Palliative Medicine Consultant Physician, Greenwich Hospital, NSW; Nathaniel Alexander, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW, NSW; Anne Booms, Palliative Care Nurse Practitioner, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Dr Roger Goucke, Consultant, Department of Pain Management, Specialist Pain Medicine Physician, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, and Clinical Ass Prof, School of Medicine and Pharmacology, University of Western Australia, WA; John Marane, Consumer; and Dr Jane Trinca, Director, Barbara Walker Centre for Pain Management, St Vincent’s Hospital, VIC.

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