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Pain and Neuropathy in Cancer Survivors: Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can cause pain; research could improve its detection and treatment.

Polomano, Rosemary C. PhD, RN, FAAN; Farrar, John T. MD, PhD

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AJN, American Journal of Nursing: March 2006 - Volume 106 - Issue - p 39-47

A large number of disease-free cancer survivors live with pain or neuropathies induced by treatment or by the cancer itself. Sometimes these conditions resolve over time, but irreversible damage to tissue and nerves can cause pain and neuropathy to progress and persist indefinitely. Because health care professionals may not recognize these as delayed problems or know how to identify those at greatest risk, many of these conditions go undiagnosed and untreated.

The research on pain and neuropathy conducted among cancer survivors is of varying quality. Comprehensive clinical reviews of literature related to pain and peripheral neuropathy do exist. However, most investigations of these problems focus on treatment-related sequelae during therapy and shortly afterward. Few cross-sectional or prospective longitudinal studies document the incidence, time course, and problems associated with the long-term effects of pain and neurologic impairment. Observational studies and case reports have been published, but these involve small sample cohorts that may not be representative of the larger numbers of people living with long-term effects of cancer treatment. Few randomized, controlled trials test interventions that alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life. Data from surveillance studies are limited, making it difficult to estimate the prevalence and incidence of long-term pain and neuropathies among cancer survivors, as well as their susceptibility to developing these conditions.


Neuropathy refers to a “disturbance of function or pathological change in a nerve: in one nerve, mononeuropathy; in several nerves, mononeuropathy multiplex; if diffuse and bilateral, polyneuropathy.” 1 Neuropathies are generally associated with sensory or motor dysfunction, but not all neuropathies are painful. The International Association for the Study of Pain defines neuropathic pain as “pain initiated or caused by a primary lesion or dysfunction in the nervous system” 1 that disrupts impulse transmission and modulation of sensory input.

Most chronic pain syndromes and neuropathies experienced by disease-free survivors of cancer originate from an injury to peripheral nerves from surgical trauma, 2–5 neurotoxicity of chemotherapeutic agents, 6, 7 and radiation-induced damage to nerves (see Table 1, page 40). 8 Other sources of persistent or intermittent pain 9–11 include

Chronic Pain Syndromes Associated with Cancer Treatments
  • myofascial pain dysfunction syndrome, which is characterized by trigger points in muscle or at the junction of muscle and fascia that refer pain to other areas of the body, and which is associated with breast, thorax, and head and neck surgery in cancer survivors.
  • fistula formation following pelvic surgery.
  • chronic inflammation, such as radiation-induced enteritis or proctitis.
  • osteoradionecrosis, a radiation injury characterized by demineralization and vascularization of the bone.
  • less frequent but persistent nerve damage from tumor infiltration of nerves.



Chronic pain after mastectomy or lumpectomy with axillary node dissection is reported in about 20% of women. 12 Believed to be related to intercostobrachial nerve trauma, this pain, often called postmastectomy pain syndrome (PMPS), is characterized by burning, shooting, and electric shock–like sensations in the skin around the surgical sites. PMPS can interfere with both occupational and domestic activities. 13 Risk factors for PMPS are unclear, but recent data suggest that it may be more common among younger women (ages 30 to 49 years) and women who are overweight. 5, 14 Findings from a study of 134 women evaluated an average of 35 months following mastectomy and lumpectomy revealed PMPS among women who had a lumpectomy without an axillary node dissection and those who had intercostobrachial nerve–sparing surgery. 15 Health outcomes measured by the Short Form-36 Health Survey in 113 women seven to 12 years following mastectomy show significantly poorer scores in 59 women with persistent PMPS compared to 54 whose pain had resolved over time. 5 In a study of breast cancer survivors, ethnicity correlated with PMPS-like pains, fatigue, and depression; African American and Latina women reported increased rates of pain than did whites. 16

PMPS is treated pharmacologically. Topical capsaicin has been shown to be effective for associated itching and pain. 17 Administration of venlafaxine (Effexor) the night before surgery and postoperatively for two weeks was associated with decreased pain with movement and a decreased incidence of chest wall and arm pain six months postsurgery. 18 Early physical therapy may help to prevent the functional limitations in the affected arm and in cases of frozen shoulder (a condition characterized by pain, stiffness, and limited motion). 18


Between 50% and 80% of people undergoing a thoracotomy experience chronic pain several months after the procedure, 4, 19 and 30% of survivors may still have pain four to five years after surgery. 20 Neuropathic pain is experienced most frequently along the surgical scar, although some patients may also experience myofascial pain or frozen shoulder. The syndrome is believed to be caused by injury to the intercostal nerve. 21 The pain is generally mild and decreases in severity over time, but about 5% of thoracotomy survivors report severe disabling pain. 19, 22 Methods to prevent long-term pain include selecting the most minimally invasive procedure, such as video-assisted thoracotomy, and aggressively treating postoperative pain with multimodal therapy. 4 The incidence and severity of pain at six months postthoracotomy have been significantly reduced with thoracic epidural analgesia with morphine and bupivacaine (Marcaine) before and during surgery. 23 The combination of pharmacologic, behavioral, and interventional (for example, anaesthesia-based) procedures produces the best results. 21

Head and neck cancer.

Surgically induced pain and loss of function have been documented in head and neck cancer survivors. 2, 24 One study reported severe pain after surgery of both nociceptive (myofascial and soft tissue) and neuropathic origin in 52% of subjects (21 out of 40) with a mean duration of pain complaints of 26.9 weeks (one to 92 weeks). 2 Loss of sensation and decreased range of motion have also been observed. 11


Postamputation pain often has two components: one is localized to the amputated area, and the other, referred to as phantom pain, is mediated by mechanisms in the central nervous system producing neuropathic central pain. 3, 10 Amputation of limbs and other body parts such as the breast can cause phantom pain. As many as two-thirds of limb amputees report phantom pain six months after amputation and 5% to 10% experience persistent severe pain. 25 One study reported phantom pain in about 60% of survivors two years after surgery. 26 Phantom pain does not respond well to conventional analgesics, but neuropathic pain drugs such as anticonvulsants and tricyclic antidepressants are sometimes effective. Small-scale clinical trials showed oral dextromethorphan (Delsym), an N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor antagonist, to be effective in mitigating phantom limb pain in cancer survivors. 27, 28


Radiation-induced pain syndromes such as myelopathy, which is characterized by damage to nerve tracts along the spinal cord and tissue necrosis or damage, while less common with advances in radiotherapy, are not well described. Refinements in technical applications of X-rays, computerized tomography scans, magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography scans, and electronic portal imaging are among the improvements in the ability to localize tumors and spare normal tissue from the effects of radiation exposure. 29 Combined treatment modalities (radiation therapy with chemotherapy) also minimize the need for aggressive radiotherapy. Ongoing research is needed to evaluate these advances in minimizing long-term toxicities. 30 The diagnosis of radiation-induced pain syndromes, specifically myelopathy and other tissue damage, can often be obscured by the recurrence of tumor in the irradiated area, which can also cause pain and neurologic impairment. 8

Survivors treated in past decades may experience chronic myelopathy, which is characterized by a burning sensation localized to the spinal region and can first occur up to 14 months after treatment. 9 Limited information is available about nerve damage with early use of radiotherapy; however, one study of 71 cancer survivors treated between 1963 and 1965 found that 92% experienced paralysis of the affected arm up to 34 years after radiation. 31 By tracking the time course for late effects, these investigators documented 86% with fibrosis and 14% who had already developed brachial plexus neuropathy at two years after treatment. Nineteen percent experienced grade 3 to 4 pain (on a scale of 0, no pain, to 4, very severe pain) an average of 3.1 years following therapy. A recent case report described a patient with severe cervical neuropathy three decades after being treated for Hodgkin lymphoma. 32

Other sources of pain have been documented among survivors after radiation therapy. In a clinical trial involving 143 survivors of cervical and endometrial cancer, which was conducted to examine the effects of dietary modifications on radiation-induced diarrhea three to four years after treatment, lower back pain was observed in 17 women and pains in the hips and thighs in 14 women. 33 The etiology of these pains was unclear. According to another study, 12% of 195 survivors treated with intraoperative electron radiation for a variety of cancers suffered from peripheral neuropathy five years after treatment. 8 Pelvic radiation for prostate, cervical, and endometrial carcinomas leads to chronic proctitis in about 2% to 5% of cancer survivors, but there does not seem to be a relationship between acute proctitis and the development of chronic pain. 34 Pain on defecation can occur with chronic proctitis, which can be treated conservatively with antidiarrheal medications, topical steroids, and sucralfate enemas. 35


Several classes of chemotherapeutic drugs such as the plant alkaloids, including vincristine (Oncovin) and vinblastine (Velban); taxanes such as paclitaxel (Taxol); the platinum-based compounds cisplatin (Platinol), carboplatin (Paraplatin) and oxaliplatin (Eloxatin); and the antimitotics methotrexate (Trexall), cytosine arabinoside (Cytosar-U), and fluorouracil (Adrucil) may cause peripheral neuropathy. Animal experiments have suggested the biological mechanisms for nerve damage from drugs such as paclitaxel, vincristine, and cisplatin. 36–38 Clinicians take this adverse effect very seriously, as it can interfere with optimal dosing, delay sequencing of therapy, or necessitate discontinuation of treatment.


Estimates for the incidence of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathies vary considerably. This development of both short-and long-term toxicity is highly dependent on several factors such as age, single-dose intensity, cumulative dose, combinations of neurotoxic agents, coexisting neuropathies (for example, diabetic neuropathy), genetic susceptibility, alcohol abuse, impaired drug metabolism, and excretion of active metabolites. 7, 39 Hundreds of studies document the occurrence of neurotoxicity during treatment with various agents and combination regimens. Yet few well-designed longitudinal or cross-sectional studies capture the number of cancer survivors who continue to experience pain and functional limitations years after therapy or the time course, severity, and patterns of neurologic impairment. Extensive reviews have been published to summarize the literature on this widespread problem. 6, 7, 39, 40


Severity, characteristics, and duration of symptom experiences vary greatly with neurotoxic chemotherapeutic agents. For example, paclitaxel can induce sensory impairment and pain, whereas vincristine often causes a sensorimotor neuropathy that also includes motor dysfunction such as foot drop. 39 Peripheral neuropathies generally affect the distal parts of extremities symmetrically and are characterized by a “stocking and glove” phenomenon of the feet and hands and with paresthesia or dysesthesia, including sensations of numbness or tingling. Vincristine- and platinum-containing compounds can also induce autonomic symptoms such as orthostatic hypotension, constipation, paralytic ileus, and bladder dysfunction. 40

The time course for the onset of peripheral neurotoxicity has been well described for some agents. For example, patients receiving cisplatin develop signs of neuropathy about one month after the first course of therapy. 41 It is more variable with oxaliplatin, which can typically produce symptoms within 30 to 60 minutes after the infusion. 42 Delayed neurotoxicity has not been well studied, but some survivors experience persistent residual effects of chemotherapy, including paresthesia, dysesthesia, pain, or sensory and motor impairment months and even years after treatment is discontinued. 43–45 Several recent reviews have addressed the diagnosis and assessment of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathies. 7, 39, 46


Anticonvulsants, tricyclic antidepressants, and opioids can be effective for alleviating neuropathic pain. 47 Novel pharmacologic agents such as neuroprotective compounds (examples are amifostine [Ethyol]; glutamine, an amino acid; and glutathione, an antioxidant and product of glutamine metabolism) and neurotrophic factors (such as nerve growth factor) can also be effective. 47 Some data are available to show that glutamine, which acts as a substrate for dividing cells, helps prevent or minimize peripheral neuropathy related to paclitaxel-induced neurotoxicity. 48 Vitamin E has shown some promise in prophylaxis of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy with cisplatin and paclitaxel. 49 Less is known about nonpharmacologic and alternative therapies. In a clinical case report, two patients benefited from an implanted spinal cord stimulator that alleviated pain, increased leg flexibility, and led to improvements in sensory threshold detection. 50 Exercise and occupational therapy can be helpful in restoring function of extremities, but studies of their effectiveness have mostly been done in the early treatment phase. Other nutritional supplements such as evening primrose oil, alpha-lipoic acid, and capsaicin may be effective with advanced peripheral neuropathy from diabetes but have not been adequately studied in cancer survivors. 45

Summary of Evidence for Treatment-Induced Pain Syndromes
Review Articles on Chemotherapy-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy (PN)


A vast amount of literature addresses cancer pain symptoms, but long-term pain and neuropathy among disease-free survivors has received far less attention, despite evidence that pain can be severe and neurologic impairment disabling, compromising recovery and the quality of life. Well-designed cross-sectional and longitudinal studies would elucidate much about the incidence and prevalence of treatment-induced pain and neuropathies. Better data are also needed to chart the onset and duration, patterns in severity, and characteristics of pain or neuropathy; to correlate survivor-reported data with diagnostic criteria and clinical manifestations; and to measure the effect on quality of life and responses to interventions.

Evidence is growing to explain interpatient symptom variability; to identify incidence, risk, and severity; and to understand the biopsychosocial impact of posttreatment pain syndromes. Most of the research has been conducted among survivors of breast, lung, head and neck, and colorectal cancers. 11, 15, 21, 24, 51 But there is still a significant void in scientific knowledge and practice-based experience about survivors’ responses to various pain-relieving interventions.

Few studies have examined the efficacy of neuropathic pain agents in treating long-term cancer survivors. Anticonvulsants, tricyclic antidepressants, and chronic opioid therapy for treatment-induced pain syndromes, especially postmastectomy, postthoracotomy, and chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, should be researched. Similarly, few studies document success rates of analgesics, specific intervention techniques, cognitive and behavioral therapies, exercise, and other alternative therapies such as nutraceuticals. Moreover, the benefits of specialized pain management through referrals to pain clinics or centers have not yet been realized. Criteria for when to refer patients with cancer-related pain for interventional therapy and nonpharmacologic consultations are outlined in the National Cancer Center Network Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (see “Adult Cancer Pain” in the section titled “Guidelines for Supportive Care”). 52

In July 2002 the Office of Medical Applications of Research and the National Institutes of Health created a group of pain and oncology experts to evaluate the symptom cluster of pain, fatigue, and depression. The quality of evidence was appraised, gaps in research identified, and future research priorities established. Subsequently, Carr and colleagues published an extensive review of available evidence on the efficacy of treatments for cancer-related pain. 53 Even though these evidence-based summaries focus predominantly on pain from disease progression, the effectiveness of interventions can also be generalized to pain experienced by survivors. While there are no specific guidelines for the treatment of pain and neuropathy in survivors, information can be obtained from evidence-based guidelines summarizing scientific advances in the diagnosis and understanding of neuropathic pain mechanisms and therapeutic approaches. 54 Other sources offer useful information on pharmacologic agents used to treat neuropathic pain. 55, 56


Pain management in cancer survivors raises some specific issues (see Table 2, page 42). Lyne and colleagues emphasized the importance of educational and financial issues in the management of pain with survivors. 9 The problem of “don’t ask, don’t tell” may prevent patients from freely reporting any symptoms of pain and signs of neurologic impairment.

Factors Contributing to Underreporting and Undertreatment of Pain Among Cancer Survivors

It is the responsibility of all health care professionals caring for cancer survivors to educate them about the possibility of long-term consequences of cancer and cancer treatments. Teaching survivors about the potential for pain and neurologic damage creates an environment in which they are more likely to report their symptoms. On a more practical level, education can focus on promoting self-management. 46, 57 Survivors can learn to protect hands and feet, prevent falls, assess water temperature to prevent burns, use protective gloves and pot holders, keep rooms well lit, clear walkways, and use nonskid mats in showers and bathtubs. 46 A 2002 article in Cancer Practice offers a detailed listing of resources available to posttreatment cancer survivors to assist them in engaging in self-help activities and interventions. 58

Based on available information on posttreatment pain syndromes experienced by cancer survivors, there are important implications for nursing practice. Nurses must take a careful and comprehensive health history to identify cancer survivors who might be at risk for long-term painful sequelae and neurologic impairment. Once treatment-related pain syndromes are identified, a thorough assessment should follow, eliciting information on the severity, quality and character, and duration of pain, and on the level of sensory and motor impairment. Better assessment tools are needed to detect these problems.

Almadrones and associates tested two instruments to measure functional status and neuropathy in ovarian cancer patients: the Gynecological Oncology Group Performance Status Scale and the Peripheral Neuropathy Scale. 59 These instruments provide pertinent questions to help patients communicate their functional limitations and performance in activities of daily living and establish criteria for evaluating the presence and severity of peripheral neuropathy–related symptoms. Neurologic examinations should be conducted, which include identifying the presence of sensitivity to touch or numbness of the affected areas, motor weakness, abnormal reflexes in deep tendons, disturbances in gait and balance, and orthostatic hypotension. 60 Lastly, treatment options that are known to be effective for neuropathic pain should be considered when nonpharmacologic approaches such as exercise, occupational therapy, and alternative and complementary therapies alone are not helpful in relieving pain and restoring optimal function.

What to Ask Cancer Survivors

  • Have you had any pain or discomfort in the area where you had surgery or radiation therapy; discomfort, pain, or unusual sensations in your hands or feet; weakness in your legs or arms; or problems moving around?
  • How much pain are you experiencing? What does it feel like? What makes it better or worse?
  • What measures do you take to alleviate the pain?


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