Doctors have a love-hate relationship with pain. It can be a precautionary friend or a debilitating foe. Pain can protect against injury by warning people to approach a hot burner, sharp knife or a steep step with caution. Or it can be an important diagnostic tool, a signal that an illness is underway. It can also give injuries time to heal. If you pull a muscle for instance, the body will remain guarded until the pain lessens. But pain can also linger on for months and years causing great suffering and disability, especially at the end of life.
Whatever the reason for pain, it should never be neglected because it speaks volumes. In particular, pain that lasts for more than two weeks, or intensifies over time, can signal something sinister is at work, such as cancer. Knowing what to pay attention to can convince you to go to the doctor sooner, when early diagnosis and treatment can do the most good.
About Cancer Pain
There are pain sensors practically everywhere in the body - in skin, muscles, bones and soft tissue. When a tumor is growing it can compress, irritate, block or destroy any tissue, tubes, ducts or blood vessels in the vicinity. Nearby nerves are stimulated and a flow of information travels along nerve pathways up to the brain where pain is perceived. The characteristics of cancer pain - whether it is dull, sharp, aching or burning - depend on the nerve pathway that is stimulated and how fast the signals are transmitted. Some messages take no time at all to arrive at pain centers in the brain, such as ones that cause you to flinch suddenly, while others throb and gnaw at a slower pace.
Cancer pain can correspond directly to the spot where the tumor is located, or a distance from the original source. The pain can occur as soon as the tumor begins growing, or long after treatments end.
The quality and quantity of cancer pain also depends on how much room there is for the tumor to expand. So if a tumor is hemmed in the brain, pain might be experienced sooner than tumors in the belly, where it has more space to grow and spread.
Not all cancers cause pain, and the absence of pain doesn't rule out cancer. But pain is noteworthy, whether it is slight or strong.