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Headaches in Cancer Patients

Individuals with cancer usually complain of both primary and secondary headaches; primary headaches include cluster headaches, tension headaches, and migraines while secondary headaches are caused by an underlying medical factor such as cancer and its drugs.  Doctors work toward relieving the side effects of cancer itself and the anti-cancer drugs used in its treatment, said side effects of which include headaches.

Description Based on Characteristics

As with non-cancer patients, the symptoms of headaches are described based on several characteristics, namely:

  • Frequency.  How often do your headaches attack – daily, weekly or monthly?
  • Severity.  How painful is the headache (i.e., degree of pain)?  The pain may range from mild to severe, which can swing both ways or remain constant.
  • Quality.  How would you describe the pain of your headache?  It can be stabbing, throbbing and piercing as well as a pressure or a dull ache.
  • Duration. How long does your headache last? It can range from minutes to days, start and end very suddenly, or come and go for a prolonged period.
  • Timing.  When does your headache start?  The time can provide your doctor with a clue about its type, such as in the case of tension headaches that occur later in the day.
  • Location.  Where does the pain starts or occurs most of the time?  Headaches can be over the eyes, over the forehead or temples, on one or both sides of the head, or at the back of the neck.
  • Trigger.  What brings on your headache attacks? Common triggers include blinking lights, loud noises, and exposure to the cold as well as specific foods.

It is then advisable to maintain a headache diary detailing all of the abovementioned factors.  Your doctor can then make the necessary changes in your chemotherapy drugs or radiation protocol as well as recommend medications, lifestyle changes and home remedies to minimize your headache attacks.

Wide Range of Causes

As a cancer patient, your headaches may be caused by one of several of these factors:

  • Cancer.  Your cancer may be causing your headaches, which is true when you have primary cancer of the brain or of the spinal cord as well as secondary cancer in these areas (i.e., cancer originating from other parts of the body that has spread to the brain).  Other types of cancer that can cause headaches are upper throat cancer, pituitary gland tumors, and a few types of lymphoma.
  • Chemotherapy.  Drugs used in your treatment can initiate cancer including procarbazine (Matulane) and fluorouracil (5-FU, Adrucil).
  • Medications.  Antibiotics, antiemetics, and heart medications have been known to cause headaches, too.
  • Radiation therapy when delivered to the brain.
  • Infections.  These include sinusitis and meningitis.
  • Immunotherapy.  This is designed to improve the body’s natural defenses in fighting off cancer cells.
  • Other conditions related to cancer and its treatments.  Anemia (low red blood count), hypercalcemia (high calcium level), and thrombocytopenia (low platelet count) are the most common culprits.  Dehydration resulting from severe vomiting and diarrhea can also cause headaches.
  • Emotional issues.  When you have cancer, you will deal with emotional-related issues like anxiety, stress and insomnia that also cause headaches.

Again, you should maintain a headache diary so that your doctor can identify the causes behind your headache attacks and take the necessary measures to relieve your pain.

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