About one-third of people with cancer have pain. Cancer pain can be affected by:

  • Progression of the cancer
  • Location in the body
  • Overall physical condition


Cancer pain is often grouped by what is causing the pain such as:

  • Pain from the tumor—Tumors can press on bone, nerves, or an organ.
  • Pain related to cancer therapy including:
  • Pain unrelated to the cancer or treatment such as:
    • Headaches
    • Arthritis
    • Muscle strains

Chemotherapy Affects the Whole Body

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Risk Factors

Having cancer is the main risk factor for cancer pain.


Cancer pain will vary from person to person. In general, any type of pain felt by someone with cancer is cancer pain. The pain may:

  • Be near or far from the tumor
  • Vary in intensity
  • Be regular and long lasting or come and go
  • Be described as pressure, sharp, dull, throbbing, burning, stabbing, or achy


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Special tests may also be done to find possible causes of the pain.

Imaging tests may be needed to look for sources of pain. Bone fractures and lesions can be found this way. Imaging tests may include:

Your doctor may need to test your nerves. This can be done with:


Your plan will depend on the type of pain you are having. It will also depend on how your cancer has been treated. The overall goal is to manage pain. Options include:


  • Non-opioids—to treat mild-to-moderate cancer pain:
    • Acetaminophen
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Opioids—often used to treat moderate-to-severe cancer pain
  • Other medications that may help with pain related to the central nervous system (neuropathic or central pain) include:
    • Antidepressants
    • Anticonvulsants
    • Steroids

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy can help to shrink tumors. It may be used to relieve:

  • Bone pain
  • Pain caused by tumors pressing on other structures

Alternative Treatments

Acupuncture may be helpful in reducing cancer pain. Talk to your doctor to see if this is a good option for you.


Cancer pain usually cannot be prevented.


American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute


Canadian Cancer Society

Provincial Health Services Authority


Cancer pain. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed January 8, 2018.

Cancer pain. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated September 7, 2017. Accessed January 8, 2018.

General information about cancer pain. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Updated August 31, 2017. Accessed January 8, 2018.

2/11/2011 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance Paley C, Johnson M, Tashani OA, Bagnall AM. Acupuncture for cancer pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(1):CD007753.

Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP  Last Updated: 12/20/2014