Caring for someone in pain
You may be reading this because you are caring for someone with cancer-related pain. Caring for someone who is in pain can be very difficult and stressful. It’s natural to feel upset and helpless at times – it can be distressing to watch someone you love suffer.
This information answers some common questions carers might have. If you have other concerns, see Caring for someone with cancer, contact Carers NSW for support, or find services through the Carer Gateway.
Questions you may like to ask:
- What if the person with cancer asks for more pain medicine?
- Should I keep opioids locked up?
- Can a person taking opioids sign legal documents?
- When should I call the medical team?
- What if they lose consciousness?
Only the person with cancer can know how much pain they feel. If you have been using a pain scale together, this can help you both communicate about the need for extra doses. The person with cancer may be experiencing breakthrough pain and may need a top-up dose. If this occurs regularly, they should see their doctor again for advice on managing it.
If you’re still worried the person with cancer is taking or wanting to take too much medicine, talk with their doctor about the dose they can safely have and other ways to help manage the pain.
As with all medicines, it is necessary to keep opioids away from children, perhaps in a high cupboard. If a member of your household or a visitor has a drug-dependence problem, it is safest to keep the opioids in a secure place.
When someone signs a legal document, such as a will, they must have capacity. This means they must be aware of what they are signing and fully understand the consequences of doing so. If they lack capacity, the documents can be contested later.
If a person’s ability to reason is affected by taking opioids, it makes sense to delay important decisions until the impairment has passed. Ask your GP or specialist to assess whether the person with cancer is fit to sign a legal document or talk to a lawyer about this before the document is signed.
Call a doctor or nurse for advice if the person with cancer:
- becomes suddenly sleepy or confused
- hasn’t had a bowel motion for three days or more
- is vomiting and cannot take the pain relief
- has severe pain despite top-up doses
- is having difficulty taking the medicine or getting prescriptions filled
- experiences other symptoms that the treatment team has mentioned, such as hallucinations with particular drugs.
If the person with cancer becomes unconscious suddenly, call 000 immediately. Do not give opioids to an unconscious or very drowsy person.
This information has been developed by Cancer Council NSW on behalf of all other state and territory Cancer Councils as part of a National Cancer Information Working Group initiative. We thank the reviewers of this information: Dr Tim Hucker, Clinical Lead, Pain Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and Lecturer, Monash University, VIC; Carole Arbuckle, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Anne Burke, Co-Director, Psychology, Central Adelaide Local Health Network, SA, and President Elect, The Australian Pain Society; Kathryn Collins, Co-Director, Psychology, Central Adelaide Local Health Network, SA; A/Prof Roger Goucke, Head, Department of Pain Management, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, Director, WA Statewide Pain Service, and Clinical A/Prof, The University of Western Australia, WA; Chris Hayward, Consumer; Prof Melanie Lovell, Senior Staff Specialist, Palliative Care, HammondCare Centre for Learning and Research, Clinical A/Prof, Sydney Medical School, and Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Health, University of Technology Sydney, NSW; Linda Magann, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Palliative Care and Peritonectomy Palliative Care, St George Hospital, NSW; Tara Redemski, Senior Physiotherapist, Gold Coast University Hospital, Southport, QLD.
Thank you to the Australian Adult Cancer Pain Management Guideline Working Party, Improving Palliative Care through Clinical Trials (ImPaCCT), and the Centre for Cardiovascular and Chronic Care (University of Technology Sydney), whose work contributed to the development of the previous editions of this booklet. Thank you also to the original writers, Dr Melanie Lovell and Prof Frances Boyle AM.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
The information on this page is also available for download.
Check out this supportive online community for people affected by cancer
Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment
Work and cancer
Information for employees, employers and workplaces dealing with cancer