Does Cancer Hurt?


Bob Riter
Bob Riter

When I talk with groups of students, someone usually asks, “Does cancer hurt?”

It’s an interesting question that can be answered on many different levels.

Most cancers don’t hurt at first. Cancers are often found by the detection of a painless lump, or some other symptom such as coughing or bleeding.

There’s an odd disconnect when you are first diagnosed. You think to yourself, “I feel fine, but they want to do surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, all of which may hurt or make me feel sick. Does this make sense?” Beginning treatment is a real leap of faith.

Cancer treatment can hurt – some treatments more than others. People with head and neck cancers have especially rough times. More than one told me that he had the “sore throat from hell.” Once treatment is over, though, these patients bounce back and tend to do quite well.

Most advanced cancers have the potential to cause pain. The good news is that our ability to control that pain is dramatically better than it was in the past. Nearly everyone’s pain can be effectively controlled if appropriately evaluated and aggressively treated.

As a cancer survivor and as someone who works with cancer patients, I maintain a mental list of things to worry about. I worry about my cancer returning and I worry about dying from cancer. But I don’t worry about dying in pain because I recognize and appreciate our ability to control pain.

That’s the notion of physical pain. On an emotional level, though, cancer causes pain in nearly everyone. It’s painful for the person with cancer and it’s painful for the family. Cancer plunges your well-ordered life into a dark sea of uncertainty. Everything you once took for granted suddenly seems precarious. That’s the pain we all feel.

It’s our hearts that often hurt the most.

Reprinted with Permission of the Ithaca Journal
Original Publication Date: April 20, 2012