Every year on February 4th, people around the globe take some time to spread awareness and hope on World Cancer Day. Created to connect people to resources, support, and information, World Cancer Day is a time when citizens come together to bring the challenges and triumphs of a cancer diagnosis to light.

Part of the day is working with others in local communities to press local and national governments for more research and action on this disease. Another important facet of World Cancer Day is the continual search for more treatment options for cancer patients, especially those treatments that are more holistic and helpful for cancer patients who are also experiencing chronic pain.

One in three cancer patients will experience chronic pain that sometimes lasts well beyond treatment. Focusing on holistic treatments for cancer pain as part of a comprehensive cancer treatment plan can be an effective way to raise a patient’s quality of life, even as they battle a life-threatening disease.

Cancer pain has three main causes.

The cancer itself

One of the most common causes of cancer pain stems from the cancer itself. As a tumor becomes larger, it can press against muscles and organs, causing pain. If the tumors are located along the spinal column, peripheral neuropathy from the tumor pressing on the spinal cord may result. Bone cancer can often cause deep, unrelenting pain in the bones. Finally, chemicals released by the tumor itself can cause tissue and nerve damage that causes pain.

The treatments

It is ironic that the treatments that are designed to save a life could cause so much pain, but chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation are all associated with cancer pain. Radiation and chemotherapy can both cause painful sores in the mouth and throat. Patients may also experience burns on the skin from the radiation. Because cancer treatments suppress the body’s immune response, surgery can make cancer patients more susceptible to infection and slower to recover, prolonging post-operative pain. Breast cancer patients who are treated with mastectomy surgery are especially susceptible to chronic pain following surgery.

Some patients may also experience phantom pain after a surgery, especially if the surgery involves amputation.

Previously existing conditions

Some cancer patients present with previously existing chronic pain conditions. Even if the chronic pain condition has been well-managed, treatment for cancer can complicate that treatment. Chemotherapy and radiation can cause nausea and fatigue. If exercise has been a part of a chronic pain treatment plan, that might fall by the wayside as the weeks wear on. Additionally, some medications for chronic pain may not be as effective or may have side effects in combination with cancer medications.

Fortunately, there are holistic complementary treatment options for all three of these types of cancer pain.


Acupuncture is the ancient practice of using hair-thin needles inserted at specific points in the body to stimulate other nerve responses (instead of pain). It has been shown to prevent nausea and vomiting and is especially effective in relieving joint pain and stiffness. For prostate and breast cancer, both of which involve hormones, acupuncture has been proven effective in reducing hot flashes for both men and women.

Acupuncture is also effective for breakthrough pain when needles are inserted deeply and manipulated. Breakthrough pain is generally an acute type of pain that is severe and occurs in spite of previously-effective analgesics. Acupuncture can address that without increasing the dose of medication and without side effects.


When practiced by a qualified therapist, massage has been shown to reduce anxiety, stress, nausea, emotional distress, and cancer pain. There was a 50% reduction of symptoms, including pain, in a study of nearly 1,300 cancer patients over 12 studies receiving one of three types of massage: Swedish, light touch, and foot. While these effects were short-lived, there is significant and growing evidence that regular massage is an effective way to address cancer pain and other related symptoms.


Far from a magician’s party trick, hypnotherapy is a holistic way to approach cancer pain. There is scientifically valid evidence as to its effectiveness for women with metastatic breast cancer, terminally ill cancer patients, and children with cancer. When combined with cognitive behavior therapy, hypnosis was more successful at pain relief after bone marrow transplant than traditional methods of pain relief.

Other treatments

For breast cancer survivors, sometimes a simple change in the operating room can reap tremendous rewards.

A new study from the American Society of Anesthesiologists found that changing the type of anesthetic offered to breast cancer patients during mastectomy reduced the chances of post-operative chronic pain. Utilizing intravenous lidocaine during the surgery resulted in a chronic pain rate of 12%, as compared with the traditional control group’s rate of 30%. Another study using propofol saw chronic pain rates cut in half as compared to traditional anesthesia.

But even before surgery, simply taking an extra bit of the sunshine vitamin (vitamin D) has been shown to reduce the chances of chronic pain due to chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is often associated with a risk of joint and muscle pain. A study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that patients who added a 50,000 unit vitamin D supplement once a week (in addition to getting their recommended daily allowance) reported less pain and a better quality of lives than the control group.

Complementary treatments are a nearly risk-free addition to a cancer treatment plan. Talk to your doctor to see which ones might be right for you or your loved one.

Around the globe, over eight million people die of cancer, four million of them prematurely between the ages of 30 to 69. World Cancer Day aims to change that, promoting research and education on holistic treatments that may help improve the quality (and quantity) of a person’s years.

How will you get involved this year?


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