What breast cancer feels like and how patients find relief for pain from breast cancer treatment, including post-mastectomy pain syndrome.
The most common symptom of breast cancer, especially when the disease is found at an early stage, is a new lump or mass that’s usually painless — but not always. Tenderness or other discomfort when touched is what breast cancer feels like when it does cause pain, according to the American Cancer Society.
By learning what breast cancer pain feels like and how the pain can be relieved or controlled, you can improve your quality of life as you go through cancer treatment and afterwards, as well, the National Cancer Institute points out.
The most common type of pain associated with breast cancer occurs after a mastectomy. In fact, studies have found between 20 and 30 percent of women treated surgically for breast cancer develop symptoms of post-mastectomy pain syndrome (PMPS). Although the condition was named because it was initially described in women after they had mastectomies, the same type of pain also can occur after breast-conserving surgery, such as a lumpectomy, the American Cancer Society notes.
What does this type of breast cancer treatment-caused pain feel like? PMPS is marked by chronic pain in the chest wall or armpit. Pain may also be felt in the shoulder or in a breast surgery scar.
“It is neuropathic pain — nerve pain — and it can feel like burning, tingling, and/or a pins and needle sensation typically in the chest and, sometimes, in axilla (the armpits),” explained pain management specialist Vinita Singh, MD. “Radiation and chemotherapy, in addition to surgery, can cause neuropathic pain, too.”
To help breast cancer neuropathy pain, Singh uses non-addictive medications, including topical lidocaine creams and drugs, that treat nerve pain, such as gabapentin, pregabalin (Lyrica), and duloxetine.
If you need additional help for nerve pain, other options are available, including radiofrequency ablation. This procedure zaps troublesome nerves with pinpointed heat, causing tiny lesions that stop nerves from causing discomfort. Nerve blocks, which involve injecting nerve-numbing medication into a group of nerves to block pain in a specific area, may be helpful for some patients.
In addition to nerve pain, breast cancer treatment can also result in somatic pain, which occurs when pain receptors in skin, joints, muscles, and connective tissues are activated. Somatic pain can be sharp, gnawing, throbbing, or aching.
March 16, 2020
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA