6 myths about cancer pain debunked
Most types of pain associated with cancer are completely treatable. But lots of people can misunderstand cancer pain (or its symptoms) and end up in more pain than they need to be.
Half-truths and misinformation have a way of spreading, so it can be a bad idea to search the internet for answers to your health questions or take advice from well-meaning friends who don’t know all the facts.
These are some of the most common myths and misconceptions around cancer pain.
Myth 1: “I have a painful lump. It must be cancer.”
Pain doesn’t automatically mean that a lump or tumor is cancerous.
For example, a painful breast lump could just be a cyst or normal breast tissue that’s become enlarged and tender (or sensitive to touch) during your premenstrual period.
The only way to really diagnose cancer is through a biopsy, where a sample of the suspected lump is taken and examined by a pathologist. Be vigilant about checking your breasts and always report anything unusual to your doctor.
Myth 2: “My doctor knows I’m in pain because of my cancer, so I don’t have to tell him.”
Your doctor isn’t a mind reader, and many of the clinical exams won’t tell your healthcare team you’re in pain. So it’s up to you to tell your doctor about your pain so he or she can help you manage it.
Doctors have ways of measuring pain. They can ask you questions like how much pain you feel, how you would describe your pain and where you feel the pain. This is how your doctor decides on the best way to help you.
Myth 3: “I have cancer so I should expect pain and tolerate it as much as possible.”
You should never suffer in silence when you’re in pain. Your pain can be from your cancer, one of your cancer treatments or from something else entirely. Your doctor should be able to identify the source of your pain.
The right medication or treatment should be able to relieve cancer pain for most people. If your current treatment plan isn’t working, tell your doctor – they might be able to suggest something else.
Myth 4: “My doctor has recommended opioids for my cancer pain. That must mean I’m a hopeless case.”
Despite what many people believe, opioid-based painkillers are not reserved for the terminally ill.
Analgesics (painkillers) are prescribed based on the severity of your pain. If your pain is mild, your doctor may give you paracetamol or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like ibuprofen to start with.
If your pain doesn’t go away or gets worse, you may be given a stronger drug, like an opioid. Your doctor will monitor your pain and adjust your prescription if you need less over time.
Myth 5: “I know this painkiller is strong so I don’t have to take it regularly.”
Your doctor has given you a schedule for a reason, so avoid the temptation to skip a dose – or you may not benefit from the full effects when you do take it.
If you’ve been taking your prescribed painkillers but are still in pain (something doctors call breakthrough pain), your doctor can either adjust your current drug’s dose or advise you to ‘top up’ your painkillers with another kind of medication like paracetamol. But always ask your doctor exactly what you can and can’t take (and how much) before self-prescribing yourself extra medication.
Myth 6: “I don’t want to start taking opioids because I’m sure I’ll get addicted.”
This is a very common myth. The truth is, using opioids for a prolonged period of time might make you dependent on or tolerant to them – but that’s very different from being addicted to opioids.
Becoming tolerant means you’ll need higher doses to get the same effect.
It’s normal for you to become physically dependent on opioids if you take them regularly, but this doesn’t mean you’re addicted to them. It just means that if you stop taking your medication abruptly, you’ll feel unwanted side effects. This is why your doctor needs to monitor your response to your medication, and will adjust the dose or gradually wean you off your medication based on your needs.
On the other hand, addiction is a psychological condition that changes a person’s behavior, prompting them to seek out more medication than they physically need. People who have an addiction problem have lost control over their drug use and continue to use it even when the drug is doing them or others harm.
When you take your medication exactly as advised by your doctor (that is, the right amount at the right times), you’re unlikely to get addicted.
Don’t be afraid to take new medications. Your doctor is aware of the risks (if any), and will recommend them if they have been proven effective and help provide the best quality of life. Take note of your doctor’s instructions so your medication works the way they should, and make sure you understand your treatment plan well. Follow the plan you agreed on and don’t hesitate to ask questions or raise your issues with your healthcare team.
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