How do headaches affect cancer patients?

Cancer-related headaches may cause pain on one or both sides of the head. The pain may be limited to part of the skull or cover the entire head. Some headaches may feel as if the head is in a vise. Others have been described as a dull, piercing or throbbing ache.

The brain has no pain receptors. Instead, headaches linked to brain cancers are caused by fluid buildup pressing on pain-sensitive blood vessels and nerves, or by the tumor causing pressure inside the skull. Headaches may also be side effects of spinal cord tumors, pituitary gland tumors, upper throat/nasopharyngeal cancer , as well as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, advanced-stage lung cancer and primary brain lymphomas.

Headaches associated with brain tumors include those that:

  • Develop in the morning but improve as the day goes on
  • Are accompanied by vomiting
  • Feel like a constant ache, but do not develop into a migraine
  • May throb, depending on where the tumor is located
  • Get worse with physical activity or changes in body position

In some cases, over-the-counter pain relievers are not helpful. Some pain relievers may cause a “rebound headache,” meaning the medication no longer works or wears off and prompts withdrawal symptoms. Taking low-grade dosages of pain medication for a long time may result in headaches that never seem to go away.

Breast cancer patients may experience headaches for a variety of reasons, including as a side effect of:

  • Medication taken to prevent bone loss during cancer treatment
  • Treatment, such as chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and targeted therapy

Because non-Hodgkin lymphoma may cause stress on the musculoskeletal system, patients with this cancer type may experience headaches and pain in their neck and/or back.

It’s also important to note that cancer patients may experience headaches that are unrelated to their disease or its treatment.

How likely are cancer patients to experience headaches?

An estimated one in two patients with brain tumors suffers from headaches that get worse with time, according to the American Cancer Society. The American Brain Tumor Association estimates that about half of all brain tumor patients get headaches caused by their tumors.

How may integrative care help?

Several supportive care therapies target headaches and other pain, to improve quality of life and help patients avoid treatment delays or interruptions. These therapies include:

Mind-body support

Mind-body therapists help patients manage headache pain through various wellness practices, including guided imagery techniques that offer a distraction, breathing and relaxation therapies designed to help patients achieve a sense of calm. These therapists teach patients how positive mental images and focused breathing techniques may help enhance physical and emotional comfort.

Learn more about mind-body medicine

Pain management

For patients who suffer from headaches or other pain, pain management specialists may help them recover their quality of life. These licensed physicians may recommend over-the-counter pain medications for mild pain, while more severe headaches may require prescription analgesics or painkillers, topical treatments or nerve blocks. In severe cases, Botox® and/or nerve stimulation may be used to treat headaches. Nerve blocks or implanted pain pumps may also help address underlying back or neck pain.

Learn more about pain management