Does Chemotherapy Hurt?

What to Expect Before, During, and After Treatment

Ethnic adult female with cancer smiling at camera
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One of the foremost questions asked by people facing chemotherapy is simple: how painful is chemotherapy? It’s a fair question given the plethora of images fed to us on TV and film about the "ravages" of cancer treatment.

And while, yes, chemotherapy can cause discomfort and sometimes even pain, it’s important to remember that our anticipation of what’s going to happen can cause anxiety and distress that on heightens our perception of pain and discomfort.

In an effort to alleviate some of that anticipation, let’s take an objective look at what to expect during an average chemo session:

Insertion of the Intravenous Catheter

Ordinary there is little pain associated with chemotherapy other than the initial intravenous (IV) access to your veins.

If your chemo is being administered intravenously, there can be a minor sting and some discomfort as the needle is being inserted into your skin and a thin, flexible tube (called a catheter) is eased into your vein. The needle will not be left in your arm but is simply there to direct the catheter into place. Once the needle is removed, the drugs can be directly fed into your bloodstream.

If you are very nervous about any pain you might experience, you can ask your doctor to prescribe a numbing patch that can be kept in place for around 20 to 30 minutes. For the most part, people undergoing IV chemotherapy report little discomfort.

Some cases with require longer terms options such as a port-a-cath or PICC line. There are inserted into a vein and can be kept there for few weeks or even months at a time. In this way, a needle doesn’t have to be inserted and removed each and every visit.

Port-a-caths are the more permanent of the two options and require a local anesthetic; some minor pain can be expected immediately following the 30-minute procedure.

Discomfort During an Infusion

The actual chemotherapy process is usually painless. Some chemo drugs may cause a slight burning as they enter your vein, but this is usually minor and tends to ease as the infusion progresses. If the IV in your hand or wrist, you may feel the burning sensation moving up your arm. This is perfectly normal and will eventually ease off.

If during a session you feel any genuine pain or discomfort, let your chemo nurse know. In some cases, the location of your cancer can make it difficult to sit or lie in one place for very long. The same thing applies if you’ve had recent surgery. In the event this happens, your doctor can suggest medications to help ease the pain.

After Effects of Chemotherapy

In the days and weeks following chemotherapy, you may experience some unpleasant side effects related to the drugs you've been given. Some of the more common include:

  • mouth sores
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • peripheral neuropathy (numbness and pain caused by damage to nerve cells)
  • deep aching in your legs and arms (often experienced with drugs like Taxol)

Many of the symptoms can be relieved with medication and tend to subside as the course of your therapy progresses.

A Word From Verywell

Pain tolerance is not a term we should use to describe how a person experiences chemotherapy.

Pain is not something you "tolerate" but rather a very real experience that deserves the full attention of those treating you. There is no shame in telling your care team that you are in pain. You are dealing with enough not to take advantage of every reasonable means to lessen the discomfort you are feeling.

On the other hand, if you are unable to cope and feel completely overwhelmed by what you’re going through, you need to speak with someone who can help, be it your doctor, a therapist, or a cancer support group. 

Reach out for help if you’re in distress. Don’t tolerate it in silence.

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