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?

This information was last reviewed in April 2018
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