Pain is a common symptom of mesothelioma, and it is often one of the earliest signs of the disease.
More than 60 percent of pleural mesothelioma patients report chest pain. Between 30 and 50 percent of peritoneal patients report abdominal pain.
Mesothelioma causes pain in multiple ways. Breathing or digestion may become painful when tumors grow and press against vital organs. The cancer may also cause a buildup of fluid that increases pressure in the chest or abdomen.
If the cancer infiltrates muscle or bone, it will cause constant aches and pains. Advanced mesothelioma can also cause nerves to malfunction and send pain signals to the brain. This condition is called neuropathic pain, or nerve pain.
Pain from mesothelioma is often more difficult to treat than pain from other types of cancer. The best approach to managing it is a combination of medical treatments and psychological coping strategies.
Pain management is an important part of every mesothelioma treatment plan. Untreated pain can lead to poor concentration, insomnia, anxiety, anger and depression.
Whether or not a patient chooses to receive aggressive cancer treatment, doctors and caregivers should always look for ways to alleviate the patient’s pain.
Palliative Treatments for Pain
Palliative treatments are intended to ease symptoms rather than fight cancer. Medication is the most common treatment for mesothelioma pain.
Palliative care is also known as supportive care. It is different from hospice care, which focuses on making a patient comfortable at the end of their life. Palliative care supports other therapies and should be integrated into all types of treatment plans.
Common Pain Medications for Mesothelioma
- Minor Pain: Doctors recommend starting with over-the-counter products such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
- Moderate Pain: Doctors combine weak opioids such as codeine with adjuvant medications, which may include antidepressants, anticonvulsants, anti-inflammatories, ketamine or topical lidocaine patches.
- Severe Pain: Doctors replace weak opioids with strong opioids such as morphine.
Because of the widespread opioid-abuse problem in the U.S., some patients worry taking prescription opioids will lead to addiction or a state of sedation. The risk of this is low as long as patients take opioids under a doctor’s supervision.
In many cases, a cancer patient’s quality of life is better with opioids than without them. Rather than causing sedation, the pain relief from opioids can reduce a patient’s fatigue and give them a clearer mind.
In many parts of the U.S., medical marijuana is also available for treating mesothelioma pain. It has proven benefits in terms of reducing pain, anxiety, insomnia and nausea in cancer patients.
The key is for the patient and their caregiver to keep doctors informed on how well medications are working and what side effects they have. It is useful to keep a daily journal of which medications the patient takes and what the effects are.
Cancer patients can experience many different types of pain, and doctors need to understand the patient’s symptoms to prescribe the right treatments. Pleural mesothelioma patients often describe their pain as aching, tender or sharp.
If the pain is caused by fluid buildup in the chest or abdomen, often it can be easily alleviated through a minor surgery to drain the fluid.
Palliative radiation may be another treatment option for pleural mesothelioma patients. A 2016 study in the journal Pain Medicine reported radiation therapy shrinks pleural tumors and provides pain relief in about half of patients.
How to Cope with Mesothelioma Pain
Palliative treatments cannot always alleviate pain caused by mesothelioma. Patients will benefit from practicing psychological techniques such as relaxation, distraction and visualization. Patients should also reach out to others for emotional support.
A mesothelioma patient’s experience of pain is connected to their thoughts and feelings. Anxiety and depression make pain worse, and vice versa. Chronic pain may prevent patients from working or participating in social activities, leading to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Patients should be open and honest with their caregivers, and they should seek help from a counselor or support group if they need it.
Practical Pain-Management Tips
- Pay attention to what makes your pain better or worse, and work within your limitations.
- Schedule activities during the part of the day when you feel the least pain, and get plenty of rest.
- When you are in pain, focus your attention on things you enjoy such as games, books or TV shows.
Medical Procedures for Mesothelioma Pain Relief
Pain medication works for the majority of cancer patients, but it does not work for everyone. When this happens, others treatments can reduce the level of pain.
Common Medical Pain Relief Treatments
- Surgery: Neurosurgeon can perform a procedure to block the nerve pathways that carry pain signals to the brain.
- Palliative chemotherapy: Procedure can shrink the tumor and reduce pain.
Pain Relief Through Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Certain complementary and alternative medicines can help mesothelioma patients manage pain.
For example, art therapy can distract patients from pain and help them find meaning in their experiences. Artistic hobbies and crafts can give patients something productive to do when they have insomnia or cannot be as physically active as they used to be.
Alternative Therapies for Pain Relief
- Breathing Exercises: Help relieve tension and promote relaxation.
- Biofeedback: A learned technique that may help patients control their pain.
- Hypnosis: Creates a state of deep relaxation and may reduce stress and anxiety.
- Massage: Facilitates relaxation and may relieve painful muscle spasms.
- Acupuncture: May reduce stress and relieve symptoms caused by medical procedures and medications.
- Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS): Electrodes placed on the skin transmit a gentle current into the tissues to ease muscle tension and pain.
While these alternative therapies should not replace conventional treatments, they may assist in relieving some of the pain associated with mesothelioma cancer.
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Last Modified January 15, 2019
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