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Cancer Health Center

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44% Say 'Breakthrough' Cancer Pain Uncontrolled

Sudden Crippling Pain Is One of Most Challenging Aspects of Cancer
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 4, 2010 -- Nearly half of patients suffering breakthrough cancer pain -- intense bouts of crippling pain -- say treatment does not offer adequate relief.

On average, patients rate the pain as 7.4 on a 10-point scale where 10 is the worst pain imaginable. Over half of patients rank the pain as 8, 9, or 10, according to a Harris survey commissioned by the American Pain Foundation.

"We're not talking about minor aches and pains," American Pain Foundation CEO Will Rowe says in a news release. "These severe flares of pain often strike without warning, leaving many people fearful of the next crippling episode."

What these patients need is effective pain management. Yet over half of patients say their doctors tell them that breakthrough cancer pain is a normal part of cancer or its treatment. Over a quarter of patients say their health care providers won't discuss their pain with them.

"Providers and patients should not accept breakthrough cancer pain as a normal side effect of cancer," Russell K. Portenoy, MD, chair of pain medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center, says in the news release. Portenoy is an American Pain Foundation board member.

The survey of a nationally representative sample of 545 patients with breakthrough cancer pain was conducted in October 2009.

Some survey findings:

  • 47% say their pain is due to their cancer treatment.
  • 96% have a breakthrough pain episode at least once a month; 71% have one at least once a week. More than 20% have several pain episodes each day.
  • 73% say they wake up with breakthrough pain at least one night each month.
  • 60% say their pain interferes with their relationships.
  • 66% say their breakthrough cancer pain causes them financial difficulties.
  • 25% say they can't pay for prescribed pain treatments.

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