Pain is the result of inflammation or damage to parts of the body. Pain can be a symptom of breast cancer itself or a side effect of breast cancer treatment.

Pain happens when nerves or tissues are damaged or inflamed. Pain can be sharp, dull, throbbing, stabbing, achy, tingling, or pinching, and can be described in many other ways. Pain may come and go or it may be steady.

Pain can be a symptom of breast cancer itself or a side effect of breast cancer treatment. Pain also can cause many other side effects, including:

Doctors consider pain either acute or chronic.

Acute pain usually comes on suddenly because of disease, injury, or inflammation. Acute pain is usually severe and short-lived, such as the intense pain you feel if you break a bone. Acute pain usually doesn’t last longer than six months; it goes away when the underlying cause of the pain goes away. So after the broken bone heals, it’s no longer painful. Sometimes acute pain can turn into chronic pain.

Chronic pain is ongoing, usually lasting longer than six months. Chronic pain can continue even after the injury or illness that caused the pain has healed or gone away. Some people have chronic pain even when there is no past injury or damage to the body.

You may also hear the term breakthrough pain. This sudden and brief flare of pain breaks through the relief provided by pain medicines or other therapies used to manage chronic pain.


Types of pain

Breast cancer may cause different types of pain depending on its characteristics and its treatments. Sometimes, pain can be a symptom of the breast cancer itself, particularly with metastatic breast cancer or inflammatory breast cancer. But pain is often a side effect of breast cancer treatments. Depending on the types of treatment, pain can vary in intensity and affect different parts of the body.

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Talking to your doctor about pain

It’s very important to tell your doctor about any kind of pain you’re having so your medical team can develop a plan to treat it.

Telling your doctor about your pain doesn’t mean you’re complaining or that you’re a bad patient. Pain is no different from any other symptom or side effect of either the breast cancer or the breast cancer treatment.

Keep a pain diary

Keeping a pain diary can help you give your medical team detailed information about the pain you’re feeling. It’s a good idea to keep the diary on your phone or in a small notebook.

Start by listing any breast cancer treatments you’re receiving. Then list any pain medicines, including the dose and how often you take them, and any other techniques you may be using to control pain.

Each time you feel pain, write down:

  • the date and time

  • where the pain is located

  • what the pain feels like, for example, whether it’s dull, sharp, shooting, stabbing, or achy or more like a spasm

  • the intensity of the pain on a scale of zero (no pain at all) to 10 (the worst pain imaginable)

  • how long the pain lasts

  • any activities associated with the pain, for example, whether a particular activity makes the pain better or worse

  • the name and dose of any pain medicine you have taken, as well as the time you took the medicine and whether the medicine worked

  • anything else about the pain you think is important

Take the pain diary to your doctor’s appointments so you remember to keep your medical team updated.

It’s important to speak up if your pain management plan isn’t working. Tell your doctor if the pain isn’t getting better or if the medicines or other techniques don’t work as quickly or for as long as your doctor said they would.

It’s also important to be aware of the scrutiny that now surrounds opioid pain medicines. A dramatic increase in opioid overdose deaths led the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to declare opioid abuse a public health emergency in 2017. According to the National Cancer Institute, efforts by states to reduce opioid prescriptions has unintentionally made it harder for people with cancer to get the pain medicines they need.

If you don’t feel like you’re getting the pain relief you need, ask for a referral to a pain physician, a doctor who specializes in treating pain. Many hospitals and cancer centers have pain management departments that include doctors, nurses, physical therapists, social workers, psychiatrists, complementary medicine practitioners, pharmacists, nutritionists, dietitians, and chaplains.


Pain Management

Pain management should be part of the discussion as you and your medical team develop a treatment plan. A plan should be in place to treat any pain you have before, during, and after breast cancer treatment. And if that plan isn’t working, it’s important to speak up and tell your medical team.

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Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor

— Last updated on August 5, 2022, 8:40 PM

Reviewed by 1 medical adviser
Brian Wojciechowski, MD
Crozer Health System, Philadelphia area, PA
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