What causes pain in cancer, and what you can do to help ease it…
Pain is probably one of the words we most frequently associate with cancer and it is one of the reasons why people are still so fearful of a cancer diagnosis. While it is true that many types of cancer do cause pain – because of where the cancer is located, for example – much of the pain, particularly muscle and joint pain, is often caused by cancer treatment. Whatever the trigger, pain of any kind is exhausting and frustrating – and is distressing both for you and for your loved ones. We’re taking a look at what actually causes this type of pain and what you can do to ease or even eliminate it.
What causes muscle and joint pain in cancer patients?
Pain can be linked to where a tumour is in your body, so it may ease once you’ve had surgery to remove the tumour or tumours. But you may have been diagnosed with cancer and not experienced any pain at all beforehand; your diagnosis has come like a bolt out of the blue. However, you may find that you start to experience muscle or joint pain – or both – once your treatment starts, whether it involves radiotherapy, chemotherapy or medication, or any combination of these.
Chemotherapy and pain
As cancer patients will tell you, chemotherapy drugs do not come without side effects and these often include muscle and joint pains. These can be tingling, burning or shooting pains and they can continue long after you have finished chemotherapy. Make sure that you tell your oncology nurse about any particular pain you are having – it’s important for them to know and they may be able to recommend something that will help.
Radiotherapy and pain
You may find that you start to have pain in and around the area where you are having radiotherapy treatment and that the joints and muscles in this area become stiff, swollen and uncomfortable. This type of pain should ease once your course of radiotherapy ends but do let your radiographer know that you’re in pain. They may be able to refer you to a physiotherapist who can recommend specific pain-relieving exercises. If you also have an underlying condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia, which causes chronic pain, radiotherapy may make the pain worse, especially if you have had to stop your normal medication for these conditions while you are having cancer treatment.
Drug treatment and pain
Many of the drugs used to treat breast cancer can cause joint pain. Research in the US revealed that almost half of the women taking aromatase inhibitors (AIs) as part of their treatment for breast cancer had joint pain and, of those, over two thirds said that their pain was between ‘moderate and severe’. Patients may be advised to take AIs for five years or longer and, although there are no reliable figures available, there’s no doubt that some women choose to stop medication because of pain and other side effects. A recent clinical trial looking at the effectiveness of a new version of one of the AIs most commonly used to treat breast cancer showed that joint and muscle pain was a frequent side effect of the new version.
Other medication used during cancer treatment that has been linked to muscle or joint pain includes targeted therapy, immunotherapy, steroids, medication to prevent infection, drugs to treat bone loss, steroids and, ironically, some pain relief drugs.
Seven ways to ease cancer-related muscle and joint pain
Do let your specialist medical team or your GP know if you are struggling with muscle or joint pain. They might recommend a course of prescription painkillers, although these need to be taken under supervision and not for long periods of time. Meanwhile, there are some excellent self-care and support methods that you can use to manage, ease, or even put a stop to your pain!
1) Balms and rubs
These are a gentle and very cost-effective way of soothing aching muscles. One of our customers loved this lavender muscle rub, ‘I got very achy knees and legs towards the end of my chemo, and this item provided instant relief and helped to reduce the pain.’
Massage can soothe and ease muscles and joints, especially if you use a pain-relieving massage oil, like this one, which is made with devil’s claw, a plant that originates from Africa and is prized for its anti-inflammatory properties. Great for the neck and shoulders! If you live alone, you could try this muscle massager set, which replicates Japanese shiatsu therapy.
3) Warm, relaxing baths
And baths are even better if you add a bath product with arnica, such as this one. Arnica is a natural plant-based anti-inflammatory and won’t irritate your skin.
4) Heating pads and wraps
Many of us find that a touch of warmth works wonders when it comes to pain relief. At Live Better With, we have a range of heating pads and wraps, including this microwavable lavender heat wrap, which also doubles as a cool wrap. It was just what one of our customers needed, ‘Helps soothe the pain from tumours or treatment; also helps alleviate stress and tension. Soothing and soft.’
5) Cooling gels
Some people find that cool applications are better for pain than warmth and many of our customers swear by this gel, which contains ilex (holly) another plant-derived natural anti-inflammatory. ‘I started using this before cancer on knees, but it is equally effective on wrists post-cancer when flare ups occur,’ according to a Live Better With customer.
6) Gentle exercise
Try to keep muscles and joints moving to prevent them becoming stiff and more painful. You don’t need to join a gym or an exercise class – or take up running, which can put a strain on already painful joints. Use a digital pedal exerciser or a hand and arm exerciser at home instead; they’re an easy and cost-effective way to build some movement into your everyday routine. If you have lost muscle tone during cancer treatment, they’re a good way to help restore it. Read our guide to cancer and exercise here.
7) Watch your weight
Carrying too much weight can put a strain on your joints, making them even more painful. If your weight has crept up during your cancer treatment, try to keep to a healthy eating regime, like the Mediterranean Diet, which emphasises plenty of fruit, vegetables, olive oil, fish and nuts. Healthy eating doesn’t have to be dull or tasteless! We have a great range of cancer cookbooks, like this one, which was written by the cancer community – people who know and understand the challenges of living with cancer. All our recommended books offer vital information and advice and are, of course, packed full of tasty, easy to prepare recipes.
Live Better With has put together a range of pain management products recommended to us by cancer patients, healthcare professionals, and charities. Used alongside any pain relief plan that your medical team has provided, they can help you through the challenge of living with cancer and cancer treatment.