- Cancer Information
- Managing side effects
- Pain and cancer
- Using pain medicines
- How to use medicines
How to use medicines
Here we look at how to effectively use your medicine.
Learn more about:
- Taking your medicines regularly
- Giving your medicines time to work
- The different types of pain relief
- Keeping track of medicines
- Discussing pain medicines with family and friends
Taking your medicines as prescribed is the best way to control the pain. Some people call this “staying on top of the pain”. Doing this may mean you can use lower doses of pain relief than if you were to wait until the pain gets worse.
If you think your pain medicine isn’t working, it’s important to let your doctor know – they may need to adjust the dose or prescribe a different medicine.
Different pain medicines take different amounts of time to work. How long each one takes depends on whether the active ingredient is released slowly or immediately.
Slow release medicines – release the active ingredient continuously to provide pain control for 12–24 hours. They are used for constant pain and need to be taken as prescribed. This helps keep the amount of medicine in the blood high enough to be constant and effective. Also known as sustained release medicines.
Immediate release medicines – release the active ingredient quickly, usually in less than 30 minutes. They are used for occasional, temporary pain because they work fast but don’t last.
How quickly different medicines relieve pain also varies greatly from person to person. It depends on how much medicine you take (dose) and how often you take it (the frequency).
To manage your pain effectively, you may be given a combination of prescription and non-prescription medicines. You may also want to try complementary therapies to improve your quality of life.
Prescription medicines – These are medicines that your doctor must authorise you to take and only a pharmacist can give you (dispense). Most prescription medicines have two names:
- the generic name identifies the chemical compounds in the drug that make it work
- the brand name is the manufacturer’s name for the medicine.
A medicine may have more than one brand name if it’s produced by different companies. For a list of generic and brand names of strong medicines, see Opioids.
Non-prescription medicines – These are available without a prescription, often from pharmacies and supermarkets, and include over-the-counter medicines such as mild painkillers and cold medicines. Vitamin supplements and herbal remedies are also considered non-prescription medicines.
Allied health services – These offer therapies, such as physiotherapy techniques, exercises and psychological therapies, to help people manage their pain.
Complementary therapies – These are therapies that can be used alongside conventional medical treatments to improve your quality of life and wellbeing.
There are different ways to help ensure you take the correct dose of medicine at the right time.
Medicine packs – You can ask your pharmacist to organise your tablets and capsules into a blister pack (e.g. Webster-pak) that sets out all the doses that need to be taken throughout the week, along with a description of each drug.
Medicines list – This records what you need to take, when to take it, how much to take and what each medicine is for. You can:
- create your own list on paper or on a computer
- order a printed list to keep in your wallet or handbag at NPS MedicineWise
- download the MedicineWise app from the App Store or Google Play onto your smartphone. You can scan the barcode on packaging to add a medicine to the app and set up alarms for taking the medicine.
Family members, carers and friends sometimes have opinions about the pain relief you’re having. Your family members may feel anxious about your use of strong pain medicines. This may be because they are worried that you will become addicted (see Common questions about opioids).
Let your family know how the experience of pain affects you emotionally, and that keeping the pain under control allows you to remain comfortable and enjoy your time with them. You may want to ask your treatment team if they can explain to your family and carers why a particular medicine has been recommended for you.
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.
Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum
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