Tips to Manage Pancreatic Cancer Pain

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on May 13, 2022
4 min read

If you have pain from pancreatic cancer, you can get relief from medication, surgery, and complementary treatments like massage and meditation.

Talk to your doctor as soon as you start feeling pain. The earlier you treat it, the easier it will be to get it under control.

It's common to have a dull pain in your upper belly and back that comes and goes. This is caused by a tumor in your pancreas that presses on your spine.

The cancer often spreads to the nerves that surround your pancreas, which also leads to back pain. It can feel worse when you lie down, but it may get better when you lean forward.

One good strategy to manage your pain is to keep track of it with a journal. Write down where it hurts and how it feels. For example, note things about your pain such as:

  • How it feels, like throbbing or dull
  • Intensity on a scale of 1 to 10
  • How often you get it
  • Time of day it happens
  • Better or worse when you eat or drink
  • What makes it improve

This information will help your doctor understand the cause and figure out how to treat it.

Depending on how severe your pain is, your doctor might suggest one of these:

Over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers. This is often the first step for mild to moderate pain. These include acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen. If you're getting chemotherapy or take other medications, check with your doctor before you try them.

Adjuvant analgesics. These medications help treat nerve pain and improve sleep and mood. They include the anticonvulsant drugs gabapentin (Neurontin) and pregabalin (Lyrica) and the antidepressants desipramine, duloxetine, and nortriptyline.

Opioids. Doctors prescribe these drugs only for more severe pancreatic pain. Often, you will take them around the clock on a regular schedule. They can cause side effects like constipation, tiredness, trouble with balance, and nausea and vomiting.

Pain pumps. If you get a lot of side effects from taking pain pills, you can try a pain pump. Your doctor places it under your skin near your spinal cord, where it slowly releases pain medicines.

If medicine isn't helping, your doctor may suggest surgery. The options include:

Alcohol nerve block. A surgeon injects alcohol into the nerves that carry pain sensations near your pancreas. This numbs them and can give you relief for 3 to 4 months.

Thoracoscopic splanchnicectomy. In this procedure, a doctor cuts specific nerve branches to give you pain relief. It's a new procedure, and while results show promise, it's unclear how long the benefits last.

Endoscopic ultrasound-guided celiac plexus nerve block. Your surgeon threads a needle through your stomach using a thin, lighted tube called an endoscope. Then they put medication into nearby nerves to relieve pain.

External beam radiation therapy. A doctor directs radiation beams at the tumor to ease pain.

Your doctor may suggest complementary treatments to ease your pain, including methods that help you relax. They calm down your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, which in turn may make you less sensitive to pain.

Massage. A licensed massage therapist will stroke or knead the muscles of your body. It can help with muscle and bone discomfort and overall pain control.

Physical activity.Exercise increases your body's level of hormones called endorphins, which may help ease pain. Research shows that people with pancreatic cancer who stay active report a better quality of life. Check with your doctor before you start. A good rule of thumb is to begin with a 5- to 10-minute walk each day. Gradually increase it until you are up to 45 minutes at least three times a week.

Meditation. It's a mind and body technique that has you focus your attention on one thing for a period of time. Examples include deep breathing, prayer, or yoga. Some studies suggest that these activities help relieve cancer pain. They can also improve your mood, which may make you notice your pain less.

Acupuncture. A practitioner places needles, heat, or pressure on certain places on the skin called acupuncture points. It's thought that when these points are stimulated, your body releases endorphins and the chemical serotonin that relieves pain and improves your mood. Ask your doctor to recommend a practitioner.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). It's a type of talk therapy that helps you manage thoughts and emotions that you may get after your cancer diagnosis. The goal is to stop negative feelings and to learn relaxation strategies. Studies show that people with cancer who take part in CBT report less pain and distress.