Hesperian Health Guides

Easing the Severe Pain of Cancer

Cancer pain may be caused by the cancer itself or from a treatment. For example, people getting chemotherapy may have mouth pain.

As a cancer gets worse, the pain caused by the cancer can become very severe. Strong pain medicines (such as morphine or codeine) relieve pain best, and the dose of these medicines may have to be raised gradually from smaller to higher amounts to work well.

Because they can be habit-forming, strong pain medicines (narcotics) are often not available. Governments and even well-meaning health workers restrict their use out of fear of drug abuse and addiction. This causes needless suffering for those with cancer and other chronic illnesses. These medicines are listed on the World Health Organization’s Model List of Essential Medicines, but more needs to be done to ensure they are available to people with cancer and others suffering severe pain. We should work against the stigma attached to these medicines, and recognize relief from pain as a human right.

Other ways to ease the pain of cancer or cancer treatments include acupuncture, massage, and physical therapy.

End of life care

There are cancers that cannot be cured, no matter where you live or how much money you spend. While it will not cure cancer, a positive attitude will help lift the spirits and improve the days of someone with cancer and her loved ones. Keeping a good attitude can help a person build the needed strength to get through each day, whether they are getting treatment or not.

a family around the bed of a dying woman.

For cancers that cannot be cured, eventually a time will come when it becomes clear that death is near. When this happens, help the person and those who love her come to an understanding about what is happening, and prepare. Remind her you will be there for her in living and in dying. She may need medication to reduce pain, and loving care to bring comfort and ease the transition to death. See Caring for Sick People (in development) for more about caring for someone as they die.

This page was updated:25 Nov 2019