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Breast Cancer Pain: Symptoms and Statistics

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Updated March 22, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Breast Cancer Pain Graph

Breast Cancer Pain Graph

Art © Pam Stephan

Feeling Breast Pain:

Breast pain is usually not a sign of breast cancer. In fact, many of us who are diagnosed with breast cancer after a suspicious mammogram are shocked - we had no breast pain, so how could something be wrong? The truth is that breast cancer is a rather sneaky disease that hides within breast tissue, using your body's resources to grow and thrive. Breast cancer doesn't usually begin by causing breast pain, but if gets beyond a certain point, it can become painful.

Most Breast Pain Is Benign:

Breast pain, or mastalgia, happens only rarely with breast cancer. Most of the time, breast pain happens along with your menstrual cycle, but it can also be linked to benign non-hormonal causes. Breast cysts, fibroadenomas or blocked milk ducts can cause pain - but even though that pain can seem awful, it isn't life threatening.

Breast Cancer Pain Statistics:

A breast tumor - a hard clump of breast cancer cells - usually doesn't cause breast pain unless it reaches the size of 2 centimeters (almost 0.8 inches) in diameter. But a tumor can be larger than 2 cm and still not cause pain. In fact, only about 5 to 15% of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer complain of breast pain. Only 7% of those diagnosed with breast cancer seek a doctor because of breast pain, excluding other symptoms.

How Breast Cancer Pain May Feel:

If breast cancer is the cause of breast pain, it may occur only in one breast. Breast cancer pain can be persistent and very specific, always hurting in just one spot. But, breast cancer can be present in your breast before it causes pain. If you have other symptoms of breast cancer, such as nipple retraction, sudden swelling of your breast, or sudden skin changes, consult your doctor for a clinical breast exam.

Metastatic Breast Cancer Pain:

When cancer does cause breast pain, breast tumors over 2 cm in size could be the cause, but it could also come from symptoms of inflammatory or metastatic breast cancer. If cancer spreads to your bones, brain or spinal cord, it may cause bone pain, headaches, or back pain with leg weakness.  In case breast cancer travels to the adrenal glands, you may feel a dull back pain. If it spreads to the liver, you could have pain in the upper right part of the abdomen.

When to See Your Doctor:

If you have been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, be sure to report pain symptoms to your doctor and get them checked out. Cancer pain can often be alleviated with treatments; so don't be shy about complaining. Sometimes a headache is just a headache, and other pains are due to arthritis and similar causes. Pain is a signal of some type of change, so investigate it and get a proper diagnosis.

Sources:

Breast Pain. Bonica's Management of Pain, page 1052-1053. Jane C Ballantyne, Scott M Fishman, James P. Rathmell. Published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2009.

Racial Difference in Pain During 1 Year Among Women With Metastatic Breast Cancer: A Hazards Analysis of Interval-Censored Data. Liana D. Castel, Benjamin R. Saville, Venita DePuy, Paul A. Godley, Katherine E. Hartmann, and Amy P. Abernethy, CANCER; Published Online: November 26, 2007 (DOI: 10.1002/cncr. 23133); Print Issue Date: January 1, 2008.

The Evaluation of Common Breast Problems. Monica Morrow, M.D. American Academy of Family Physicians. American Family Physicians. April 15, 2000.

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