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 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 a sudden and brief flare of pain that breaks through the relief provided by pain medicines or other therapies used to manage chronic pain.


Types of pain

People with breast cancer may experience different types of pain depending on the characteristics of the cancer and the treatments they have. Pain can sometimes be a symptom of the breast cancer itself, particularly with metastatic breast cancer or inflammatory breast cancer. But pain is often experienced as 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.

Learn more about the different types of pain that can occur as a symptom of breast cancer or a side effect of different breast cancer treatments.


Talking to your doctor about pain

It’s very important to tell your doctor about any pain you’re having, either from the breast cancer itself or from treatment. If your medical team doesn’t know about your pain, they can’t develop a plan to treat it.

Telling your doctor about your pain isn’t complaining and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad patient. Pain is no different from any other symptom or side effect. 

Keep a pain diary

Keeping a pain diary can help you give your medical team detailed information about the pain you’re feeling, including where and when. It can be helpful 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 or other techniques you’re using to control pain, including the dose and how often you take them.

Each time you feel pain, write down:

  • the date and time

  • where in your body you feel the pain

  • what the pain feels like: dull, sharp, shooting, stabbing, spasm, or achy, for example

  • the intensity of the pain on a scale of zero through 10, with zero being no pain at all and 10 being the worst pain imaginable

  • how long the pain lasts

  • any activities associated with the pain; does a particular activity make the pain worse or better?

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

  • anything else about the pain you think is important

Bring the pain diary with you to your doctor’s appointments so you remember to keep your doctor 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. After a dramatic increase in opioid overdose deaths, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared opioid abuse a public health emergency in 2017. Research suggests that 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.


Managing pain

There are a number of ways to manage and treat pain — from medicines and physical therapy to complementary therapies such as acupuncture and medical cannabis. Many people diagnosed with breast cancer use a combination of techniques to relieve pain.

Learn more at Managing Pain.

— Last updated on February 22, 2022, 6:48 PM

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