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How we take the pain out of cancer

November 07, 2017 | Shalini S. Shah, MD
uc irvine health pain management specialist shalini shah

When cancer strikes, patients often experience pain from the disease itself, surgery or other treatments.

And too often, not enough is done to treat the downstream effects of that pain, which can do damage to a patient’s job performance, psychological well-being, personal economics and social life.

Here at the UC Irvine Health Center for Pain and Wellness, we’re very aggressive in treating the whole person when we help cancer patients cope with pain. UC Irvine Health is home to the National Cancer Institute-designated Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, and we are eager to help patients battling this disease.

Who experiences cancer pain?

Not everyone with cancer experiences pain. But unfortunately, very often pain accompanies cancer. Seventy percent to 80 percent of people diagnosed with cancer complain first of pain. Another 30 percent experience pain from the treatment of cancer.

Cancer pain can be the result of the tumor impinging on nerves, bones, abdominal organs or other tissues. Cancers that have big tumors compressing on neighboring systems — such as pancreatic, prostate and bone cancers — can be exquisitely painful.

The treatments of cancer — surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation — can cause pain, as well. Even people who are now cancer-free can experience pain that is not necessarily an indication that the disease has returned.

Our job is to help you get through the experience with the least amount of pain, while always keeping in mind your quality of life and what’s most important to you. For example, when one of my patients wanted enough relief – without the heavy sedating effects of pain killers – to attend his daughter’s wedding, we opted for treatments that would allow that to happen.

How we treat oncologic pain

Here are a few cutting-edge methods we have to help with cancer pain:

  • Intrathecal pump.Using this device, we can deliver pain medication directly to the fluid surrounding the spinal cord. Because the medication is not absorbed by the blood, the side effects are reduced, so patients suffer less nausea, vomiting, constipation and sedation.
  • Nerve blocks. We use radio waves to ablate or destroy the nerves where disease is located, to block them from sending pain signals to the brain. It’s a very effective technique that lasts for about year, and you can continually repeat the process. We used this to relieve pain for several months for a patient with pancreatic cancer. When the pain came back, we used heat to destroy that entire ball of nerves without causing harm to other tissues. It worked very well and allowed the patient to wean off pain medication.
  • Spinal cord stimulation. This is an innovative, elegant technology in which we insert a very thin electrode into the spine that sends non-perceptible vibrations to the nerve centers of the spine to relieve pain. The mechanism is placed under your skin and can be made permanent after a three-day trial to make sure it works. 
  • Clinical trials. At any time, we have numerous clinical trials underway to test new drugs or devices to help alleviate pain. Some patients may be eligible to participate in these. 

Working together to alleviate pain 

Our pain center is composed of a multidisciplinary team of physicians board-certified in pain management, assisted by specialized nursing staff, pharmacists, rehabilitation specialists and physical therapists and psychologists. We find the solution best suited for each patient’s situation.

Cancer is tough enough to face, without having pain that can be alleviated. Pain that disrupts your normal life can make you irritable, frustrated, sad — even despondent. There are many options here at our pain center and at our outstanding comprehensive cancer center that can help. Don’t give up hope.

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