Are You Having Breast Cancer Pain?

How Often is Breast Cancer Painful?

sad woman sitting on stairs
Could breast pain be a symptom of breast cancer?. portishead1/iStockphoto

How often does breast cancer cause breast pain? If you have breast pain, what are the chances it's cancer? What types of breast cancers are more likely to be painful? Since breast pain affects roughly half of all women at some point in our lives, these are important questions to be asking.

Experiencing Breast Pain

Breast pain is usually not a sign of breast cancer. In fact, many people who are diagnosed with breast cancer after a suspicious mammogram are shockedthey no breast pain, so how could something be wrong?

The truth is that breast cancer is a rather sneaky disease that hides within breast tissue, using your body's resources to grow and thrive. Breast cancer doesn't usually begin by causing breast pain, but if it gets beyond a certain point, it can become painful. Of course, there are always exceptions to that general rule, so what do you need to know if you are experiencing breast pain and are worried about breast cancer?

Most Breast Pain Is Benign

Breast pain, or mastalgia, is uncommon with breast cancer. Most of the time, breast pain happens along with your menstrual cycle, but it can also be linked to benign non-hormonal causes. Other benign conditions which can cause breast pain include breast cysts,  fibroadenomas or blocked milk ducts, but even though the pain with these conditions can be very annoying, it is not usually dangerous.

Statistics on Breast Cancer & Pain

A breast tumor—a hard clump of breast cancer cells—usually doesn't cause breast pain unless it reaches the size of two centimeters (almost 0.8 inches) in diameter or greater.

But a tumor can be larger than two centimeters and still not cause pain.

In fact, only about five percent to 15 percent of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer complain of breast pain. Only seven percent of those diagnosed with breast cancer seek a doctor because of breast pain, excluding other symptoms.

How Breast Cancer Pain May Feel

If breast cancer is the cause of breast pain, it will often be present in only one breast, whereas benign breast pain is often on both sides. (An exception is non-hormonally related breast pain which is usually on one side.)  

Breast cancer pain can be persistent and very specific, always hurting in just one spot. But, breast cancer can be present in your breast before it causes pain. If you have other symptoms of breast cancer, such as nipple retraction, sudden swelling of your breast, or sudden skin changes, consult your doctor for a clinical breast exam.

Inflammatory Breast Cancer & Pain

Inflammatory breast cancer can cause breast pain which is usually unrelated to your cycle. Along with pain, you may notice redness, a rash, and severe itching.

Metastatic Breast Cancer & Pain

Metastatic breast cancer may also cause pain. It could be from a larger tumor—these are often over two centimeters in diameter—or pain in other regions of the body due to the spread of cancer. If breast cancer spreads to your bones, it may cause bone pain or back pain with leg weakness. If cancer spreads to your brain, it may cause headaches. 

If breast cancer travels to the adrenal glands, you may feel a dull back pain.

If your breast cancer spreads to your liver, you could have pain in the upper right part of the abdomen and develop jaundice (a yellowing discoloration of the skin.)

Breast Pain and Breast Cancer in Men

As with breast cancer in women, breast cancer in men is often painless. That said, it tends to push on nearby structures more rapidly than a tumor would in most women. In addition, hormone-induced breast pain is also, of course, less likely to occur in men. If you are a man experiencing breast pain, play it safe.  Breast cancer can and does occur in men, and though only one in 100 breast cancers occur in men, that's still far too frequent.

Does Breast Pain Increase the Risk of Breast Cancer?

Though it's uncommon, there are some painful breast conditions which may raise your risk. Both radial scars and multiple or complex fibroadenomas increase your risk of breast cancer (up to two times as high.) Many breast conditions which cause pain confer only a minimally increased risk of breast cancer, such as ductal ectasia, fat necrosis, a breast abscess, simple fibroadenomas, and others.

When to See Your Doctor

It's important to talk to your physician if you have breast pain from any cause. Even if it's not due to cancer, many women find that breast pain decreases their quality of life. In one study, 15 percent of women experience breast pain at some time in their life that interferes with work and family activities. So, make sure to talk to your doctor if you are experiencing any suspicious discomfort.

Sources:

Crandall, C., Aragaki, A., Cauley, J. et al. Breast Tenderness and Breast Cancer Risk in the Estrogen Plus Progestin and Estrogen-Alone Women’s Health Initiative Clinical Trials. Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. 2012. 132(1):275-85.

McCann, B., MIaskowski, C., Koetters, T. et al. Associations Between Pro- and Anti-Inflammatory Cytokine Genes and Breast Pain in Women Prior to Breast Cancer Surgery. The Journal of Pain. 2012. 13(5):425-37.

National Cancer Institute. Inflammatory Breast Cancer. Updated 01/06/16. https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/ibc-fact-sheet

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