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.
Here are 5 pains that should never be ignored.
The 2 lungs sitting on either side of the heart are flexible air sacs that expand and contract tirelessly with each breath. They take in oxygen-rich air essential for all processes in the body and releases carbon dioxide, the waste product produced by hard-working cells. Compromise their capacity and subtleness, the whole body suffers the effects. Tumors located in lungs make breathing difficult and painful. The cancer can also infiltrate the breathing tubes to cause wheezing.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women. Although smoking greatly increases the risk, lung cancer can also occur in people who have never smoked, particularly women.
The Lung Cancer Tipoff: Pain in the chest, chronic cough, coughing up of blood, shortness of breath, wheezing, hoarseness and weight loss can be a sign of lung cancer.
Pain in the abdomen can be caused by a number of illnesses including colon cancer, defined by tumors of the large intestines. When tumors invading the colon wall grow and expand, it can block off the thoroughfare that carries solid waste away. This is why people with colon cancer experience changes in bowel performance. Screening colonoscopy can visualize precancerous polyps that occupy the colon and doctors can remove them before they advance to cancer.
The Colon Cancer Tipoff: Abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, blood in stool, rectal bleeding and difficulty passing stool, change in stool consistency and weight loss can be a sign of colon cancer.
The pelvic region contains some reproductive and urinary tract organs, such as the uterus, ovaries and bladder. Some women may be accustomed to pelvic pain, cramping and bloating as part of the normal menstrual cycle, but it can also point to cancer of the ovaries. One of the problems with ovarian cancer is that pain usually appears late in the disease because the ovaries on each side of the uterus have a spacious cavity to grow in, and painful symptoms only appear when the tumors enlarge. But research is revealing that many women with ovarian cancer do in fact experience symptoms.
The Ovarian Cancer Tipoff: Pelvic, abdominal or lower back pain, bladder pressure, changes in urinary bowel patterns, bloating, fullness and weight loss can be a sign of ovarian cancer.
While chronic headaches are debilitating, they are not usually caused by brain tumors. However there are some types of headaches that are particularly worrisome. The brain is contained in the skull, so when tumors invade there is no place for the brain to expand. The tumor impinges on the tissue and fluid inside of the brain is unable to drain naturally.
The Brain Cancer Tipoff: Chronic early morning headache, or one that wakes you from sleep, that is also associated with nausea, vomiting, changes in sensation, vision, speech or balance, can be a sign of a brain tumor.
When we think of pain we usually focus our attention to soft tissue. But bone is tissue too and pain can be experienced here as well. Bone is comprised of a dense mineralized tissue and softer hollow called bone marrow, where stem cells are produced that eventually turn into mature platelets, white blood cells and red blood cells. Cancer can arise in bone or travel from another location in the body (metastasis). When cancer invades the dense matrix that makes bone hard, it weakens the structure and makes them more prone to fracture.
One type of blood cell cancer called multiple myeloma affects blood plasma cells, a type of cell involved in immunity. It causes tiny holes throughout bone that can weaken and fracture easily. As the cancerous cells become more abundant in the marrow, it crowds out healthy stem cells so they never have a chance to mature into healthy platelets, red blood cells and white blood cells.
The Multiple Myeloma Tipoff: Chronic bone pain, back pain, unexplained fractures, anemia, frequent infections, and fatigue can be a sign of multiple myeloma.
Reporting Pain to Your Doctor
The type of pain you experience can offer clues to its cause. Keep these factors in mind when describing your pain to your doctor.
- Where the pain is located
- When you first noticed the pain
- What precipitated the pain
- How long you have had the pain
- How long the pain lasts when it comes
- How often the pain occurs
- What you do or take that makes it worse
- What you do or take that makes it better
- What it feels like - stabbing, throbbing, stinging etc.
- What other symptoms you have
- What you think it is
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