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Painkillers for pancreatic cancer

Painkillers can control your pancreatic cancer pain if you take them regularly. Your doctor will explain how much to take and how often. It’s important to follow their advice to make sure the painkillers work well.

There are two main types of painkillers – non-opioids (such as paracetamol and ibuprofen) and opioids (such as codeine and morphine).

Some people worry about getting addicted to painkillers like morphine. You can take the full dose that your doctor has given you without taking too much or getting addicted. Addiction shouldn’t be a problem for people with cancer if they take their painkillers as prescribed by their doctor.

If you plan to travel abroad, you may need to take a letter from your GP to say which medicines you’re taking. Read more in Macmillan Cancer Support’s booklet, Travel and cancer.

The pain ladder

The type of painkiller you have will depend on how bad your pain is. Your medical team will use a ‘pain ladder’ to work out which type of drug to start with. The pain ladder shows which types of painkillers treat different levels of pain. It may take some time to find the right drug and dose to control your pain.

You will start at whichever step is right for you. If your pain gets worse, you will move up the pain ladder to the next type of painkiller.

Pain Ladder Diagram

Non-opioid painkillers

Non-opioid drugs include paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen. They treat mild pancreatic cancer pain. You can also take them together with opioid drugs to treat stronger pain.

Follow your doctor’s instructions when taking non-opioids, and don’t take more than the recommended dose. Medicines from the chemist, like cold and flu medicines, often include paracetamol or NSAIDs. Check with the pharmacist or your medical team before taking them.

NSAIDs can help relieve pain in the tummy area and bone. Possible side effects include stomach problems, like loose and runny stools (diarrhoea), so take them after food. There is also a risk that they could cause stomach ulcers. Your doctor may give you a medicine to prevent this if you’re at high risk.

If you’re having chemotherapy, your doctor may tell you not to take paracetamol or ibuprofen. Or they may tell you to always check your temperature before you take them. This is because chemotherapy can make you more at risk of an infection. Paracetamol or ibuprofen can hide an infection by lowering your temperature and making you feel better, but they won’t cure the infection. Read more about chemotherapy and infections.


Published October 2016

To be reviewed October 2018

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