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Pain is a common experience for people with cancer, although not all people with cancer will experience pain. With today's knowledge of cancer pain and the availability of effective pain relievers, no one should have to suffer from unbearable pain. No matter what the cause, most types of cancer pain can be managed with medication and complementary therapies.

Along with chronic (persistent/long-term) cancer pain, some people have an acute flare-up of pain, which may not be controlled by the prescribed medication. However, this breakthrough pain can also be controlled by medications. If this happens, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor or oncologist for more pain relief.


What causes cancer pain?

The cancer itself. Probable causes include the pressure of a tumour on an organ, on bones or on nerve tissue. Sometimes cancer can cause pain when blood vessels become obstructed by the tumour.

Cancer treatments. There are a variety of treatments for cancer, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone treatment – all of which can have unpleasant side effects. However, pain is one effect that can be successfully managed.

Some examples of treatment-related pain:


  • Chemotherapy side effects that can cause pain include mouth sores, numb and sometimes painful sensations in the feet, legs, fingers, hands and arms, constipation, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and bone/joint pain.
  • Surgery will cause pain while you are recovering from the operation, but your surgeon and nurses will provide medications to manage it. Many people find that post-surgical pain is a lot less traumatic than they expected.
  • Other procedures used in cancer, such as biopsies, lumbar punctures and radiotherapy can cause pain, but again, this pain can be successfully managed with appropriate medications.



What is the treatment for cancer pain?

Medications used for the treatment of cancer pain are chosen on the basis that they provide the greatest pain relief possible with the fewest number of side effects.


First-line medications

Mild pain. For mild cancer pain, over-the-counter pain relievers like paracetamol, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), may be sufficient.

Mild to moderate pain. When pain is not relieved by paracetamol or NSAIDs alone, opioid medications are often used, usually in combination with NSAIDs or other analgesics (pain relievers). Some of the opioid medications used include codeine and dihydrocodeine (DHC).

Moderate to severe pain. Moderate to severe pain is usually best treated with higher doses of opioid medications such as tramadol or morphine.  NSAIDs and other analgesics may also be used.


 Adjuvant medications

Some medications originally developed to treat medical conditions other than cancer have been found to have pain-relieving qualities. These medications are called "adjuvant", meaning something that helps or assists. Adjuvant medications used for cancer pain treatment include antidepressants, anticonvulsants and corticosteroids.


Other Options:

In some instances radiotherapy can be useful for bone pain. There are also highly specialised nerve blocks and drug delivery systems which can be of benefit when more severe pain is not controlled by conventional means. Most hospital and communities have access to specialist pain management and palliative care health professionals.


More information

A website sponsored by The Association of Cancer Online Resources (ACOR), the largest online community of cancer patients, to provide education and support


Cancer Society of New Zealand


Information on cancer from the Ministry of Health






Any medical information in this website is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, it is of a general nature only.  Please consult with a health care professional if you have a specific problem. 


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