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Pain Common One Year After Breast Cancer Surgery

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More than half of women who have breast cancer surgery have continuing pain a year after surgery, according to a Finnish study.

The research was published as a Research Letter in the Jan. 1, 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Read the abstract of “Pain at 12 Months After Surgery for Breast Cancer.”

To see if any specific factors were linked to continuing pain after surgery, the researchers looked at the medical records of 860 women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer who had surgery to remove the cancer:

  • 54% of the women took hormonal therapy before surgery
  • 62% of the women had lumpectomy
  • 38% of the women had mastectomy
  • 48% of the women had axillary lymph node dissection
  • 52% of the women had sentinel node biopsy
  • 57% of the women had chemotherapy after surgery
  • 73% of the women had radiation therapy after surgery
  • 68% of the women took hormonal therapy after surgery; about half the women took tamoxifen and about half took an aromatase inhibitor
  • 75% of the women were older than 50
  • about 7% of the women were suffering from depression

A year after surgery, the researchers sent the women a survey on pain, asking about pain both before and 1 year after surgery, as well as its severity. The results showed that:

  • 24% of the women had pain problems before surgery, including pain from fibromyalgia and low back pain
  • 34.5% of the women said they had no pain
  • 49.7% of the women said they had mild pain
  • 12.1% of the women said they had moderate pain
  • 3.7% of the women said they had severe pain

This means that about 66% of the women had mild to severe pain 1 year after breast cancer surgery.

The researchers found that certain factors were linked to continuing pain after surgery:

  • preoperative pain problems
  • preoperative pain in the area where breast cancer surgery would take place
  • preoperative depression
  • axillary lymph node dissection
  • radiation therapy after surgery
  • chemotherapy after surgery

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 Pain section.

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