Not everyone with cancer experiences pain. Pain may be caused by cancer itself as it creates pressure on or invades the nerves, bones or organs.1 Some types of cancer treatments, including radiotherapy, surgery and chemotherapy can also cause discomfort or pain.
Understanding its cause will help tailor its treatment. Pain may be dull and achy, sharp or burning, or may even feel like an electric shock. In the case of brain cancer, pain may cause headaches. Pain related to cancer itself is often controlled by cancer treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and anti-inflammatory steroid medication. Pain from cancer and pain caused by treatment can also usually be effectively controlled by pain-relieving medications. If you have pain, you should talk to your doctor about treatment.
Depending on where the pain is experienced, it may restrict your mobility and movement and curtail some of your work-related activities. Pain can also make you more tired. Pain medications can be very effective, but they also may cause side-effects, although most side-effects either lessen with time or can be controlled. Sleepiness, nausea, and constipation are common side effects of medications such as opioids (like morphine), and all of these problems can also affect your ability to work.2 Sleepiness may make it harder to concentrate at work and pose safety risks in operating machinery or driving. Steroids may cause sleeplessness and agitation. Ask your doctor what alternative pain medicines could be tried if you have side-effects from your current treatment. Pain itself can also cause you to feel irritable and frustrated, especially if it persists for a long time, and you will be able to function much better if you have effective pain management with appropriate medications.
What you can do
There are many ways to manage pain effectively. These include medications of many types, but also non-pharmacological techniques such as relaxation therapy, massage, exercise3 and even supportive counselling services can contribute to relief. Speak with your healthcare provider for help in developing an individualized pain management plan.
Track your pain level and activities throughout the day to determine the optimal times for pain management intervention.
- You may want to consult the Canadian Cancer Society web page on managing pain.
- You can also consult the booklet How to Manage your Pain (PDF) produced by the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, Patient & Family Education Program.
- If you are taking dexamethasoe for brain tumour or other kind of cancer, you may find helpful information at dexamethasone from the BC Cancer Agency.
- The website Chronic Pain Association of Canada also has resources to help you manage your pain. They recommend keeping a pain diary to track your pain levels and intensity. This information may be beneficial if you ask for changes at work based on the pattern of your pain throughout the day.
Overall, your main task is keeping your pain level under control. This means taking your pain medication regularly, as prescribed and as needed. If your pain is not managed or if you experience new pains, these situations should be addressed by your healthcare team.
Modify your work tasks and how you work:
- Work from home when possible.
- Adapt your work schedule and tasks:
- Ask for flexible work hours to accommodate your capability.
- Request extra rest breaks.
- Identify and request shift preference to match your optimal functioning (for example, day shifts only).
- Identify the tasks/workspaces/positions that cause you the most discomfort and work with your employer to develop alternatives. For example, you might be able to do more if you have a desk with a standing up option or a special chair.
- Reduce physical exertion:
- Perform tasks that are less physically demanding.
- Use electric tools to replace manual effort.
- Reduce repetitive tasks; vary these tasks with other duties.
- Consider mobility aids such as a two-wheeled walker, which can take a significant amount of weight off the weight-bearing structures of the lower extremities and will fit in most spaces.
- Change positions frequently to minimize physical demands on your body.
- Pain can be exhausting; see Fatigue for more suggestions.
Modify your work environment:
- Request access to a refrigerator and/or microwave to store a hot/cold pack.
- Maintain a comfortable temperature to reduce further increase in pain: Consider using space heaters, fans, portable air conditioners or humidifiers/de-humidifiers for comfort.
- Request a professional ergonomic evaluation of your workstation. If this is not possible, here are a few tips:
- Use an anti-fatigue mat under surfaces where you frequently stand or add anti-fatigue surfaces to your shoes.
- Place frequently used materials within reaching distance.
- Use a headset if you are frequently on the telephone.
- Ensure a good sitting position.
- Adjust your chair to fit your body.
- Place your computer monitor in the right position.
- Choose a good computer mouse and place it in the best position, and use a wrist support if you have any upper body pain.