Pain affects about 50 percent of cancer patients, and we have a variety of treatments available to effectively manage your pain.

The first step is to tell your cancer care team at the University of Chicago Medicine about any pain you are experiencing. We are not only here to treat your cancer, but we also care about your quality of life. We want to help you manage all symptoms and side effects of cancer and cancer treatments.

A Team-Based Approach

Recognizing how important pain control is to our patients, we have palliative care physicians on our cancer team. These physicians are specialists in managing symptoms for individuals with cancer and other diseases. Research shows that palliative care not only improves quality of life but also extends survival for some patients.

Our palliative care physicians work side by side with our medical oncologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists, psychiatrists and other cancer team members. We also consult with interventional pain medicine experts in UChicago Medicine’s Pain Medicine Clinic who are internationally respected for their work in helping cancer patients with difficult-to-treat pain.

Together, we work to ensure your pain is controlled so you can participate in activities that matter to them. This approach also helps ensure that pain management is coordinated. We work with you on an ongoing basis, both in the hospital and in an outpatient setting, to manage pain and other symptoms.

Individualized Pain Management

Pain can develop for various reasons when you have cancer. Sometimes it is caused by a tumor pressing against nerves, organs or bones. Other times, pain is related to cancer surgery, chemotherapy or other treatments. Pain unrelated to cancer may also become worse during cancer treatment. At the same time, there are different types of pain (for example, sharp and stabbing pain versus constant nagging aches), and people have varying pain susceptibility and tolerance.

Because cancer pain is complex, we begin by conducting a comprehensive assessment to understand the cause(s) of the pain, the severity, how the individual is affected and what matters to the patient. Based on this information, we develop an individualized pain treatment plan that best meets your needs and preferences.

Pain Control Options

Treatments vary and may include one or more of the following approaches to target different aspects of pain:

Medications

Most pain can be effectively managed with a combination of medications. Multiple types and classes of medications can be used depending on the type and severity of a patient’s pain. In addition to traditional pain medications (for example, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, acetaminophen and opioids) patients may find relief from drugs used to treat other diseases, such as anti-seizure medications and anti-depressants. Medications are carefully chosen and adjusted for optimal pain management.

Interventional Pain Techniques

Our interventional pain specialists deploy a variety of treatments to relieve cancer pain, including:

  • Pain pumps: These are surgically implanted under the skin. By delivering pain medication directly to the spinal fluid, the majority of opioid side effects do not occur.
  • Nerve blocks: These are anesthetics injected near nerves. These procedures have been known to alleviate severe and significant pain from internal organs due to cancer pain. Pain relief is long lasting, allowing patients to eat better, thrive and improve their functional status.
  • Radiofrequency ablation: This involves disrupting pain signals with heat-generated radio waves. These procedures can be used to treat cancer, as well as reduce cancer pain. When a tumor arises in the spinal bones (vertebral body), our specialists treat it by destroying the tumor with heat energy, filling the gap afterwards with compact cement. This procedure, which is called radiofrequency ablation with kyphoplasty, eliminates the cancer and cancer pain from the spine tumors. It offers instant and complete pain relief, assuming the pain comes from the spine.
  • Epidural steroid injections: These joint injections are given for pain that is independent of a patient’s cancer pain and that occurs due to various osteoarthritic conditions.
  • Spinal cord stimulators: These involve delivering small electrical currents to the spine to treat pain arising from nerves. This modality is especially attractive to patients with severe pain after chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Our interventional pain physicians can discuss a wide variety of other procedures that are available to patients suffering from cancer and non-cancer pain. It is common for patients to be treated for multiple conditions that evolve during or after cancer treatment. Once a patient visits UChicago Medicine’s Pain Medicine Clinic, they can continue seeing pain specialists even after acute treatment for cancer pain is no longer needed. Our physicians are specialized in treating a wide variety of pain conditions in a dynamic, comprehensive and definitive way.

Holistic interventions

As part of our Supportive Oncology services, our emotional health specialists can help patients learn how to control pain using holistic approaches, including mindfulness and relaxation. Cognitive behavioral therapy can also help individuals develop pain coping skills.

Cancer treatments

If pain is being caused by a tumor(s), then the best way to relieve pain may be to directly treat the cancer via surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or other therapies.