Barrett's Esophagus Advanced Imaging Options
Managing Esophageal Cancer Pain
You can ease day-to-day esophageal cancer discomfort right at home — find out how.
By Diana Rodriguez
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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Esophageal cancer and its treatments can cause pain and discomfort throughout your body. Severe pain can and should be managed by your doctor with pain medication and other therapies. But to relieve day-to-day discomfort, there are a number of pain management remedies that you can try at home.
Esophageal Cancer: Pain Management at Home
If you're experiencing painful swallowing or throat, neck, or chest pain from esophageal cancer or your treatments, consider trying these pain management tips:
- Use relaxation techniques.Helping your body to completely and fully relax can be a great tool for managing cancer pain. Try meditation, deep breathing exercises, or simply visualize a happy and peaceful image. While the pain may still be there, your perception of the pain will decrease as you relax.
- Think about something else.It almost sounds too simple to work — but think about how much worse you feel when you're concentrating only on your pain. Keeping yourself busy with an activity that distracts you, like watching a movie that makes you laugh, reading a good book, or listening to some music can play an important role in helping to distract your mind from the pain. You might even try to pick up a new hobby like scrapbooking, knitting, or gardening.
- Soothe soreness with hot or cold treatments.If your throat and neck are sore from the esophageal tumor or from treatment, try applying a heat pack or a cold pack to the area — whichever feels more comfortable. Generally speaking, if you're experiencing muscle pain or soreness, heat will work best. A cold pack can help to numb a painful area. Be careful not to use either treatment for longer than 10 minutes at a time — and always make sure that your doctor says it's safe before you apply heat or cold to an area that's been treated for cancer.
- Start an exercise program.Light exercise can help you feel better during esophageal cancer treatment in many ways. It can help you to sleep better, work up an appetite, and relieve pain. Do whatever feels best to you — swimming, walking, biking, or stretching — and always check with your doctor to be sure it's safe for you to exercise.
- Rest.If you're overdoing it or just aren't sleeping well, your body will let you know it. Make sure that you're getting enough quality sleep so that your body is as rested and as strong as possible.
"There are a number of approaches to managing pain in patients, and I think that there are two issues that occur not infrequently: One, patients don't tell their doctors about their pain, and two, doctors don't ask about it or don't listen," says Len Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer of Cancer Control Science at the American Cancer Society. "Patients have to be their own advocates and be certain that their healthcare professional and their team is listening."
Getting the right type of care is essential to managing pain for esophageal cancer patients.
"It really takes a team effort in order to successfully care for these types of patients, particularly for more advanced disease. This means including experts in pain management and experts in nutrition. The most common problem, particularly with a relatively uncommon cancer [like esophageal cancer], is that people just don't have access to team-based care. They need to have access to a specialist," says Dr. Lichtenfeld. If you find that your pain is not controlled because your doctor is unable to prescribe the right medications, Lichtenfeld recommends seeing a pain specialist who can offer different medications and even complementary treatment methods.
Esophageal Cancer: Other Pain Management Methods
While pain medications can be helpful, other methods can also play an important role in managing your esophageal cancer symptoms. These might include:
- Massage.Massage is a great way to help you feel both relaxed and energized, release stress, and alleviate pain. Just get the okay from your doctor before you schedule your massage to make sure it's safe.
- Physical therapy.This treatment can help your body get stronger and help you to better tolerate the pain of esophageal cancer.
- Exercise classes.If you want to get out of the house, have some structured exercise, and enjoy the company of others, sign up for an exercise class. A yoga or tai chi class is a great way to stretch your muscles, reduce anxiety, and help control the pain of esophageal cancer.
- Acupuncture.Acupuncture is an ancient method of controlling pain and other side effects of health conditions. This practice, which involves inserting tiny needles into specific regions throughout the body, may help with your cancer pain management. Talk to your doctor to make sure acupuncture is safe for you. If it is, your medical team may be able to recommend a licensed acupuncture practitioner in your area.
"Everyone experiences pain differently, and different emotional makeup can influence how we perceive pain," says Lichtenfeld. There has been more focus and attention on pain recently because doctors are now understanding that "it's really not up to the medical professional to decide whether it's pain or not, it's the patient's perception that counts," notes Lichtenfeld.
If you are experiencing pain from your cancer, you should definitely talk to your doctor about it. Pain management is an essential part of any esophageal cancer treatment plan — but that doesn't mean that you have to rely solely on medications to feel better. Exercise, massage, and relaxation techniques can all help control your pain and leave you feeling more energized as you continue your fight against esophageal cancer.
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