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How does pain affect cancer patients?

While some cancer types are inherently painful, regardless of stage, many patients fighting advanced cancers may experience pain caused by tumors rubbing against organs, nerves or bones. Tests and treatments may also cause pain, or compound it by prompting side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, anemia, lymphedema, fatigue, fever, chills and mouth sores.

While a certain amount of pain may be expected, several therapies may be used to alleviate, manage and reduce suffering.

How likely are cancer patients to experience pain?

According to the National Cancer Institute, 20 percent to 50 percent of cancer patients experience pain, and 80 percent of patients with advanced-stage cancer experience the side effect. Managing pain is critical to cancer patients’ quality of life and ability to continue treatment, not only because the pain can be debilitating on its own, but because it has also been linked to depression, despondency and weakness.

How may integrative care help?

Several supportive care services are available to address the physical, emotional and spiritual components of pain. Acupuncture, pain medication, chiropractic care and oncology rehabilitation services may be employed to attack the pain head on, while behavioral health and spiritual support may be helpful in chipping away at some of the underlying issues that contribute to discomfort or prevent healing. Here is how they may help:


This centuries-old Chinese practice, known for its restorative powers, applies needles to “acupoints,” or strategic parts of the body. The needles are typically left in place for a few minutes, usually causing virtually no additional pain when performed by a skilled acupuncturist. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), our acupuncturists are in regular communication with other members of the patient’s care team to evaluate progress and results.

Learn more about acupuncture

Chiropractic care

At CTCA®, licensed chiropractic physicians use various techniques to address aches, stiffness in the neck or lower back, or sciatic nerve discomfort that may be the primary source of pain. Those suffering from pain caused by peripheral neuropathy, typically concentrated in the hands and feet, may also find relief through hands-on adjustment, massage, stretching, electrical muscle stimulation, heat, ice or traction techniques. Our chiropractors work closely with the patient’s oncologist to determine if and what chiropractic treatments are appropriate and beneficial.

Learn more about chiropractic care

Behavioral health

Behavioral health therapists have several tools at their disposal to alleviate discomfort, including:

  • Breathing and relaxation techniques, to revive weary patients and help them establish a sense of calm
  • Guided imagery, which leads patients through positive visualization exercises, helping them detach from the pain and transport themselves to a soothing state
  • Music therapy, which encourages patients to release stress and negativity by listening, discussing, creating or playing along to music

Learn more about behavioral health

Oncology rehabilitation

This multidisciplinary team of clinicians uses physical, occupational, manual, speech and language therapy to help cancer patients relieve a wide variety of cancer-related side effects, including pain. Oncology rehabilitation therapists use different exercises to help patients experiencing pain from surgery or treatment, as well as body/muscle/joint stiffness from reduced mobility. Practicing proper posture and stretching and strengthening exercises may restore normal body positioning and reduce stress on the spine and joints. Speech therapy may help reduce pain associated with eating, swallowing and speaking. Massage therapy offers a variety of services to reduce pain and headaches, including manual massage, acupressure, reflexology and craniosacral therapies.

Learn more about oncology rehabilitation

Pain management

Pain management physicians are essential players on the cancer patient’s care team. At CTCA, our pain management team is staffed by physicians and other clinicians trained in cancer care. These doctors primarily help patients find relief with prescription and non-prescription pain medications. This requires an ongoing dialogue with patients and their care teams to ensure drugs are working as intended, while balancing and managing potentially harmful medication-related side effects. Pain management physicians may also use nerve block therapies, implanted pain pumps or trigger point injections to address pain, and they often recommend other supportive care services such as chiropractic care, acupuncture, physical and massage therapy to achieve a well-rounded symptom-relief management plan.

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Spiritual support

Whether patients are suffering physically or emotionally, faith may offer a meaningful new perspective that may provide pain relief. Anger, guilt or anxiety—emotions that are common to patients confronting a cancer diagnosis—may compound physical pain. With the help of spiritual support services, patients work with chaplains and spiritual advisors to learn how to release and heal painful thoughts, judgments and feelings. The pastoral care team at CTCA may help them view their circumstances through a new lens and focus their attention away from the pain through prayer and meditation. While these services don’t promise to eliminate pain, they may offer a source of diversion and comfort that may prove beneficial to symptom relief.

Learn more about spiritual support