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Managing Cancer Pain

Use the mind-body connection to your advantage

James Gerhart, PhD, a psychologist at Rush, answers questions about the pain that sometimes comes with cancer — and how the Cancer Integrative Medicine Program at Rush uses the mind-body connection to offer alternative therapies.

Q: What causes cancer pain?

Gerhart: It's usually caused by either the treatment or the cancer itself.

How much pain you have depends on different things like where the cancer is, what damage it may be causing and how your body handles pain.

Everyone is different. But regardless of the source, the pain is very real.

Q: How are the body and mind connected, in the case of cancer?

Gerhart: Pain is registered through our nervous system: our nerves, spinal cord and brain. So pain is something both physical (happening in the body) and psychological (registering in the mind).

In the case of cancer, side effects from treatment — for example, nerve damage from chemotherapy or radiation — can trigger pain and emotional reactions like anxiety, sadness or anger.

Q: Are these strategies mainstream?

Gerhart: As an academic medical center, Rush focuses on treatments that are based on research.

For instance, guided imagery is a technique where patients relax by forming pleasant thoughts. Studies show this curbs anxiety and improves quality of life.

Counseling and psychotherapy are also shown to significantly reduce anxiety, depression and anger — and improve quality of life.

The challenge with selecting any treatment is keeping an open mind but also having a healthy dose of skepticism. I reassure patients that our services are research-based, but I always encourage them to let me know if it isn't working so we can try something else that will.

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