Pain after cancer treatment

Pain can have a big impact on your life and prevent you from doing the things you want to do.

Chemotherapy and surgery may damage nerves and cause pain and numbness in certain areas of your body. Your skin may be sensitive in the area where you had radiation therapy; this can last from a few weeks to several months. Scars from surgery may also be sensitive or painful for a long time.

How you manage your pain depends on the type of pain you have. Pain may be a side effect of cancer treatment or it may be caused by an unrelated problem, such as arthritis.

Learning how to manage your pain may allow you to return to many of the activities you enjoy and improve your quality of life. Discuss your pain with your doctor so that the cause of the pain can be worked out and the best treatment plan developed. In cases where no fixable cause of the pain is found, the focus will shift to improving your ability to function despite the pain.

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Common methods of pain relief

Persistent pain can be treated in a variety of ways:

  • A physiotherapist or exercise physiologist can develop a program to improve muscle strength and increase your ability to function, which may help relieve pain.
  • Movement is very important: daily stretching and walking can help you deal with the pain. It is important to pace activities throughout the day, including rest and stretch breaks.
  • Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can help people think about their pain differently. It has been shown to increase people’s sense of control, improve mood, and decrease stress and anxiety.
  • Some complementary therapies may also help, especially those that require your active participation. Always let your treating therapist know that you have had cancer. 
  • Pain-killing drugs, called analgesics, are widely used to relieve pain caused by cancer. However, they have a more limited role in relieving pain experienced by cancer survivors. Paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are the main drugs used to relieve pain in survivors. Opioids such as codeine and morphine have been shown not to work very well to control chronic pain.
  • Medicines normally used to treat depression or epilepsy have been found to help for some types of pain.
  • Rarely, some people have surgery or an anaesthetic injected into their body (nerve block).
  • If your pain is not well controlled, ask your doctor about referring you to a multidisciplinary pain clinic.
  • For more on cancer-related pain, call Cancer Council 13 11 20, or see Overcoming cancer pain.

Using pain-killers safely

All medicines including non-prescription pain-killers, may have side effects, particularly if they are not taken as directed:

  • Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist about any pain medicines you are taking, side effects to look out for, and any possible interactions with other medicines, vitamins or herbal remedies.
  • Follow the directions for use and only take the recommended dose. This will reduce the risk of misuse or accidental overdose.
  • Let your doctor know if you have any side effects. They may need to adjust your medicines.
  • Most people taking opioids won’t become addicted. The risk of becoming addicted depends on the dose and length of treatment. Some people are at increased risk.
  • You may experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking a drug, but this is not addiction. For this reason, your doctor will reduce your dosage gradually. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about drug dependence.

Other methods of pain relief

  • A physiotherapist or occupational therapist can suggest ways to address physical or practical problems that are causing your pain.
  • Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation or listening to music, may improve the effectiveness of other pain-relief methods, help you sleep and focus your attention on something other than the pain.
  • Massage or hot packs may relieve muscle spasms, stiffness and contractions.
  • Acupuncture may help by stimulating nerves to release the body’s natural chemicals, which help reduce pain.
  • Other therapies may help, e.g. hydrotherapy or electrotherapy. For more on this, see a physiotherapist.
  • Let your doctor know about any complementary therapies you are thinking about trying. Some therapies may not be appropriate. For example, your doctor may advise against a strong, deep tissue massage if you had surgery or bone problems during treatment.

Video: What is cancer pain?

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To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

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  • open your “Finder” application.
  • select “Kobo eReader” from the listed devices to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, probably in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
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EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit
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You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.

This information was last reviewed in April 2018
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Cancer information

Overcoming cancer pain
Learn more about how and why pain is related to cancer, and how to manage it

Staying healthy after treatment
Lifestyle changes that can help keep you in good health

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