Types of Pain

Types of Pain

When you start breast cancer treatment, it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between pain caused by the cancer and pain caused by cancer treatments.
 

Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between pain caused by breast cancer and pain caused by breast cancer treatments, especially when treatment first starts.

If the breast cancer is early-stage — meaning it has not spread outside the breast area — pain is not a common symptom. But a breast tumor can cause pain as it pushes into nearby healthy tissue.

With inflammatory breast cancer, which is considered locally advanced breast cancer, breast pain and redness are often the first symptoms.

If the breast cancer has become metastatic — meaning it has spread to parts of the body away from the breast — tumors in other parts of the body, such as the bones, liver, or lungs, can cause pain.

Metastatic breast cancer is more likely to cause pain than early-stage breast cancer. For example, if the breast cancer spreads to the bones, it may cause back, hip, or shoulder pain. If the breast cancer spreads to the liver, it can cause abdominal pain.

Most breast cancer treatments can cause some type of pain, ranging from mild discomfort to more intense pain. Learn more about the side effects associated with each type of treatment:

 

Abdominal pain

Abdominal pain can happen anywhere between the ribs and pelvis. This area is commonly called the belly or stomach.

Abdominal pain can take many forms, including:

  • cramps

  • stomachache

  • gas pains

  • colicky pain (pain that comes in waves and starts and ends suddenly; kidney stones and gallstones commonly cause this type of abdominal pain)

  • ulcer pain

Several breast cancer treatments can cause abdominal pain, including:

  • chemotherapy

  • hormonal therapy

  • targeted therapy

  • immunotherapy

In some cases, abdominal pain can be caused by serious problems, such as appendicitis or an infection, which need immediate treatment. If you have any type of abdominal pain that lasts longer than 24 hours or gets worse as time passes, call your doctor right away.

Abdominal pain also can be caused by breast cancer treatment side effects that affect your gut, including:

 

Back pain

Back pain can range from sudden, sharp pain to a dull, constant ache. In some cases, the pain can radiate down one or both legs or get worse when you bend, sit, lift something, or walk. Back pain is one of the most common medical problems in the world — eight out of 10 people have back pain at some point in their lives.

Several breast cancer treatments may cause back pain, including:

  • chemotherapy

  • hormonal therapy

  • targeted therapy

If you’ve been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer that has spread to the spine, back pain is a common symptom. In many cases, spinal breast cancer lesions are treated with radiation therapy.

Back pain caused by something other than spinal lesions often is treated with a combination of exercises and stretching, in some cases prescribed by a physical therapist. Other techniques that can ease back pain are:

Your doctor also may recommend over-the-counter or prescription medicines to control back pain.

 

Bone and joint pain

Pain in your bones and joints can range from mild soreness to severe pain that interferes with your ability to function and do your daily routine.

Several breast cancer treatments may cause bone and joint pain, including:

  • chemotherapy

  • hormonal therapy, especially medicines called aromatase inhibitors

  • targeted therapies

Other specific medicines may cause bone and joint pain, including:

  • bisphosphonates, medicines used to treat osteoporosis

  • Xgeva (chemical name: denosumab), a medicine used to reduce bone complications and bone pain caused by advanced-stage breast cancer that has spread to the bones

  • Neulasta (chemical name: pegfilgrastim), Neupogen (chemical name: filgrastim), and Zarxio (chemical name: filgrastim-sndz), medicines used to reduce the risk of infection during chemotherapy

If you’re experiencing bone or joint pain, talk to your doctor right away. If the pain is because of a breast cancer treatment, you may be able to switch to a different medicine.

Strategies that can help ease bone and joint pain include:

Your doctor also may recommend over-the-counter or prescription medicines to help ease bone and joint pain.

 

Chest pain

Chest pain can be a sharp stab or a dull ache. A number of issues can cause chest pain, including serious heart and lung problems. Here, we focus on pain in the chest area that is related to breast cancer treatment.

Pain in the chest area is common after breast cancer surgery and during the healing process. During mastectomy or lumpectomy surgery, nerves are bruised, stretched, or cut. So you may feel a mixture of pain and numbness in the area where you had surgery. Because nerves get irritated or damaged, you also may feel shooting pains in your chest right after surgery. Your surgeon is likely to give you a prescription pain medicine to manage this type of chest pain during the healing process.

If you have breast reconstruction with a tissue expander and an implant, you may have chest pain as the tissue stretches to accommodate the implant.

During and after radiation therapy, you also may have pain in your chest — again, because the nerves get irritated.

Strategies that can help ease chest pain include:

Your doctor also may recommend over-the-counter or prescription medicines to help ease chest pain.

 

Muscle pain

Muscle pain, called myalgia by doctors, can range from a deep, steady ache to a random sharp jab. The pain may be in one specific area or all over your body. A number of issues can cause muscle pain, including diseases other than breast cancer and infection. Here, we focus on muscle pain related to breast cancer treatment.

Nearly all breast cancer treatments can cause muscle pain, including:

  • chemotherapy

  • radiation therapy

  • hormonal therapy

  • targeted therapies

Other specific medicines may cause muscle pain, including:

  • bisphosphonates, medicines used to treat osteoporosis

  • Xgeva (chemical name: denosumab), a medicine used to reduce bone complications and bone pain caused by advanced-stage breast cancer that has spread to the bones

  • Neulasta (chemical name: pegfilgrastim), Neupogen (chemical name: filgrastim), and Zarxio (chemical name: filgrastim-sndz), medicines used to reduce the risk of infection during chemotherapy

Strategies that can help ease muscle pain include:

Your doctor also may recommend over-the-counter or prescription medicines to help ease muscle pain.

Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor

Reviewed by 1 medical adviser
 
Brian Wojciechowski, MD
Crozer Health System, Philadelphia area, PA
Learn more about our advisory board

— Last updated on September 23, 2022, 8:34 PM

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