Cancer is a diagnosis no one wants to hear. It means a forever altered life. Depending on the type of cancer and the stage it is currently in, a diagnosis could mean aggressive treatment or an unfavorable prognosis. Things are only made worse when pain becomes the defining symptom. As pain management doctors, cancer pain is something we see a lot of. And unfortunately, the pain can sometimes be difficult to relieve.
Pain is generally not considered a condition in and of itself. It is a symptom of something else. The number one reason it can be difficult to relieve is that there isn't just one cause. Doctors first need to figure out what's causing it. That can be tough enough on its own. But then the doctor also needs to figure out the most appropriate pain relief strategy.
The first thing pain doctors look at to diagnose cancer pain is tissue damage. As you probably know, cancer often manifests itself in tumors. These tumors can grow just about anywhere, and as they do they often damage surrounding tissue. Whether it is damage to bones, muscles, or any other type of tissue, the resulting pain can be debilitating.
Along similar lines, tumors can cause obstructions in hollow parts of the body. A tumor could obstruct the bowels, for example. Such a blockage would ultimately result in pain. The same goes for blockages in blood vessels, lymph vessels, etc.
Another thing we frequently see at pain clinics is cancer pain related to nerve obstruction or damage. We call this neuropathic pain. Most incidences of neuropathic pain are the direct result of nerve compression or damage. This type of pain is fairly common for diabetics. In cancer patients, neuropathic pain can be the result of tumors pressing on nerves or actual nerve damage caused by the disease itself.
Neuropathic pain can be very difficult to relieve due to its nature. The nervous system is a tricky thing. So much so that it is entirely possible to block pain signals from reaching the brain and still not achieve the desired pain relief.
An extension of neuropathic pain is nociceptive pain. It is generally caused by inflammation that arises from ongoing tissue or nerve damage. Nociceptive pain is divided into two categories. The first is visceral pain, and its root cause is organ damage. The other category is somatic pain; it is pain that has its root in the bones.
All the previously mentioned types of pain can come about as a result of the disease itself. We know that cancer destroys tissue. We know tumors can press on nerves and create inflammation. We know the disease causes pain in various organs, the bones, etc. Unfortunately for cancer patients, any pain they might experience doesn't necessarily end with the disease itself. Some of their pain is caused by the very treatments intended to save their lives.
Cancer treatments tend to be aggressive and somewhat invasive. From radiation therapy to surgery and chemotherapy, the number one goal of cancer treatment is to eradicate any and all cancerous tissue. That's the only way to achieve remission. But it takes drastic measures to do so. Sometimes, those drastic measures cause pain.
Cancer pain is a very real thing. It can be difficult to relieve for the simple fact that so many things can cause it. Fortunately, pain medicine doctors specialize in this sort of thing. They are the ones to turn to when pain relief seems fleeting.