Bioethics Blogs

Pain After Cancer: A New Model for Pain Psychology?

Guest Post by Lauren Heathcote

What if every headache, every slight twinge in your back, was potentially life threatening? What if you couldn’t tell a brain tumour from coffee-withdrawal? These can be constant, niggling worries for many people who have survived cancer, and we think their experiences can tell us something important about pain.

If you have read a Body in Mind blog post over the last few years you will likely have come across the idea that pain is all about meaning. Pain is about perceiving threat and danger to the body. The general idea is that the brain uses different types of information – including from the external and internal world through our senses, and from within brain centres that encode things like emotion and memory – to decide how much danger the body is in. The brain then produces an output based on all this information, the feeling of pain, to reflect that danger. Importantly, how we interpret painful sensations is an integral part of assigning meaning and making sense of those experiences.

So if pain is about threat – if it’s about meaning – an ideal model to study pain would be one where there is little tissue damage but a high level of perceived danger. Scientists have played around with this idea in the lab for a few decades now (like this cool study in adults and this ace study in kids). The trouble is; thanks to our cushty[1] modern ethics system, making lab participants feel like they are in extreme, life-threatening danger is understandably a bit of a no-go.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.