About Half Have Pain Problems Years After Breast Cancer Surgery

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About half of women who have breast cancer surgery have continuing pain problems a year or more after surgery, according to a study.

The researchers asked nearly 4,000 women age 18 to 70 who had had surgery to remove early-stage breast cancer about any pain problems they had had since the surgery. The women completed the questionnaire about 2 years after surgery, on average.

Overall, 47% of the women said they had recurring pain somewhere in their bodies:

  • 13% had severe pain; most of these women felt pain every day
  • 39% had moderate pain
  • the breast, arm, underarm, and side of the body were the most common places for pain
  • many women had sensory problems along with pain: numbness, tingling, or burning

Pain was more likely in women who:

  • were young (under 40) when they had surgery
  • had axillary lymph node dissection (lymph nodes under the arm removed)
  • had radiation therapy after surgery

Surprisingly, only about 25% of the women with chronic pain after breast cancer surgery talked to a doctor about treating the pain or tried to treat it on their own:

  • 20% talked to a doctor about pain within 3 months before completing the questionnaire
  • 28% had taken pain medicines
  • 26% tried complimentary medicine techniques (physical therapy or massage therapy, for example)

Treatment side effects, including pain, are a problem for many women diagnosed with breast cancer. There are a number of reasons why someone might have continuing pain after surgery, including unavoidable tissue and nerve damage when the cancer and any lymph nodes are removed. Lymphedema, a swelling of the arm, hand, or chest wall caused by a build-up of lymph fluid in those tissues after breast cancer surgery, also can be painful. But you don't have to suffer. With proper treatment, most people can get relief from most, if not all, of their pain.

Pain medications have become increasingly sophisticated and effective. There are more ways for you to take them, new knowledge of how to use them, and fewer side effects. Today, we also understand more about how complementary and holistic therapies, such as acupuncture, Reiki, and massage -- which don't use medication -- may help reduce or end pain.

If you're worried about pain during and after breast cancer treatment or have pain months after treatment, don't suffer in silence. Talk to your doctor. You may want to ask for a referral to a pain specialist who can help develop a treatment plan for your specific pain and situation.

You can learn much more about treatment-related pain and approaches to managing that pain in the Breastcancer.org Pain section.

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