How can I best communicate my pain symptoms to my oncologist?

Salene Jones, psychologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle Photo courtesy of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center

Pain is a common experience for many people with cancer and, in some cases, may be long lasting. It’s important to proactively communicate with your doctor about any pain you’re having. Don’t wait for a health care provider to ask or assume it will just go away on its own.

To help assess your pain, doctors may ask you to rate the intensity of the pain, with 0 meaning no pain and 10 meaning severe pain. While this ranking system can be useful for describing pain levels, these scores are subjective, and pain is a very personal experience. You may feel, describe or respond to pain differently than someone else.

Along with providing a number indicating the intensity of your pain, offer information on how the pain is impacting you and interfering with your daily life. For instance, you might say your pain is a 6 and that means you can’t do yard work or the pain is causing you to feel sad or upset. Communicate more than a number so your doctor can understand the many ways your pain may be affecting you.

In addition to gauging the intensity and impact of your pain, you may also express how frequently you feel discomfort. Are you in pain all the time, or is it closer to 50% or 10% of the time?

It’s often hard to remember what happened last week or a month ago, so tracking your pain over time may help you communicate about it more effectively. Use pencil and paper or try a smartphone app to keep track of pain and any related symptoms, such as trouble sleeping or walking. Tracking can give a fuller picture of how pain is affecting you over time and help you pick up on any changes in your pain.

Pain is a complex experience. Reporting on all these factors will help your doctor to better understand your experience and to help you manage your discomfort better. Cancer pain may be expected, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth mentioning or can’t be treated. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor anytime you have concerns or notice a worsening in your pain so that you can get the help you need.

COMMUNICATING PAIN // The National Cancer Institute discusses how talking openly about cancer pain is a key element of good pain control. // CancerCare has oncology social workers who can connect you to information, resources and support.

The expert’s response was edited for clarity and based on an interview with Kendall K. Morgan.