What Breast Cancer Patients Should Know About Pain Relief

By Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
May 05, 2023
What Breast Cancer Patients Should Know About Pain Relief

Here’s 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 is what breast cancer feels like when it does cause pain, according to the American Cancer Society.

But the primary breast cancer-related pain that most patients face isn’t from a lump. Instead, it’s associated with breast cancer treatment — including surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

Learning what breast cancer pain feels like and how you can relive or control it can help improve your quality of life as you go through cancer treatment and afterwards, the National Cancer Institute points out.


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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 can occur after breast-conserving surgery, such as a lumpectomy, the American Cancer Society notes.

PMPS is marked by chronic pain in your chest wall or armpit. You may also feel pain in your shoulder or in a breast surgery scar.

“It is neuropathic pain — nerve pain — and it can feel like burning, tingling, 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. The 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.


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May 05, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA