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Pain (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Overview


Flexibility is the key to managing cancer pain. As patients vary in diagnosis, stage of disease, responses to pain and interventions, and personal preferences, so must pain management. The recommended clinical approach outlined below emphasizes a focus on patient involvement.

  1. Ask about pain regularly. Assess pain and associated symptoms systematically using brief assessment tools. Assessment should include discussion about common symptoms experienced by cancer patients and how each symptom will be treated.[2,3] Asking a patient to identify his or her most troublesome symptom is also of clinical value because the most troublesome symptom is not always the most severe, as demonstrated in a survey of 146 patients in the palliative phase of treatment for lung, gastrointestinal, or breast cancer.[9]
  2. Believe patient and family reports of pain and what relieves the pain. (Caveats include patients with significant psychological/existential distress and patients with cognitive impairment.)[10,11]
  3. Choose pain-control options appropriate for the patient, family, and setting.
  4. Deliver interventions in a timely, logical, coordinated fashion.
  5. Empower patients and their families. Enable patients to control their course as much as possible.

Highlights of Patient Management

Effective pain management is best achieved by a team approach involving patients, their families, and health care providers. The clinician should:

  • Initiate prophylactic anticonstipation measures in all patients (except those with diarrhea) before or during opiate administration. (Refer to the Constipation section in the Side Effects of Opioids section of this summary for more information.)
  • Discuss pain and its management with patients and their families.
  • Encourage patients to be active participants in their care.
  • Reassure patients who are reluctant to report pain that there are many safe and effective ways to relieve pain.
  • Consider the cost of proposed drugs and technologies.
  • Share documented pain assessment and management with other clinicians treating the patient.
  • Know state/local regulations for controlled substances.

In this summary, unless otherwise stated, evidence and practice issues as they relate to adults are discussed. The evidence and application to practice related to children may differ significantly from information related to adults. When specific information about the care of children is available, it is summarized under its own heading.

Current Clinical Trials

Check NCI's list of cancer clinical trials for U.S. supportive and palliative care trials about pain that are now accepting participants. The list of trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.

General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI Web site.


  1. Weiss SC, Emanuel LL, Fairclough DL, et al.: Understanding the experience of pain in terminally ill patients. Lancet 357 (9265): 1311-5, 2001.
  2. Meuser T, Pietruck C, Radbruch L, et al.: Symptoms during cancer pain treatment following WHO-guidelines: a longitudinal follow-up study of symptom prevalence, severity and etiology. Pain 93 (3): 247-57, 2001.
  3. Patrick DL, Ferketich SL, Frame PS, et al.: National Institutes of Health State-of-the-Science Conference Statement: Symptom Management in Cancer: Pain, Depression, and Fatigue, July 15-17, 2002. J Natl Cancer Inst 95 (15): 1110-7, 2003.
  4. Breivik H, Cherny N, Collett B, et al.: Cancer-related pain: a pan-European survey of prevalence, treatment, and patient attitudes. Ann Oncol 20 (8): 1420-33, 2009.
  5. Sun V, Borneman T, Piper B, et al.: Barriers to pain assessment and management in cancer survivorship. J Cancer Surviv 2 (1): 65-71, 2008.
  6. Bruera E, Willey JS, Ewert-Flannagan PA, et al.: Pain intensity assessment by bedside nurses and palliative care consultants: a retrospective study. Support Care Cancer 13 (4): 228-31, 2005.
  7. Anderson KO, Richman SP, Hurley J, et al.: Cancer pain management among underserved minority outpatients: perceived needs and barriers to optimal control. Cancer 94 (8): 2295-304, 2002.
  8. Miaskowski C, Dodd MJ, West C, et al.: Lack of adherence with the analgesic regimen: a significant barrier to effective cancer pain management. J Clin Oncol 19 (23): 4275-9, 2001.
  9. Hoekstra J, Vernooij-Dassen MJ, de Vos R, et al.: The added value of assessing the 'most troublesome' symptom among patients with cancer in the palliative phase. Patient Educ Couns 65 (2): 223-9, 2007.
  10. Allen RS, Haley WE, Small BJ, et al.: Pain reports by older hospice cancer patients and family caregivers: the role of cognitive functioning. Gerontologist 42 (4): 507-14, 2002.
  11. Bruera E, Sweeney C, Willey J, et al.: Perception of discomfort by relatives and nurses in unresponsive terminally ill patients with cancer: a prospective study. J Pain Symptom Manage 26 (3): 818-26, 2003.

WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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