Health Magazine

Pain Can Linger Long After Breast Cancer Surgery

Posted on the 30 November 2012 by Jean Campbell


New research confirms what many of us who are breast cancer survivors already know… pain can last for years after surgery.

After my first breast cancer surgery, a lumpectomy followed by 36 radiation treatments, I experienced pain and a burning and numbness in the scar area and under the arm.

As healing took plac, these effects subsided and were replaced by a periodic shooting pain in the breast and, occasionally, a sensation of being pinched from the inside of the breast. These sensations lasted until my bilateral mastectomy 10 years later.

After healing from my bilateral mastectomy, I no longer got the pinching sensation in the breast that had a previous lumpectomy, but three years after my surgery, I still get occasional shooting pains in the areas where my right and left breast once were. Since I did not have reconstruction, I cannot attribute these ongoing pains to that surgery.

When I came across the research I’m sharing in this post, I was surprised to read that ongoing intermittent as well as chronic pain following breast cancer surgery is not unusual.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was conducted by  researchers from the University of Copenhagen. They recruited 3,253 women who had breast cancer surgery for the study.

Two years after treatment, the women answered questionnaires designed to explore the prevalence and severity of pain.

The survey revealed that:

  • 47% of the former patients reported pain in one or more areas.
  • 52% of those reporting pain characterized the pain as severe or moderate, and 48% reported light pain.
  • Among women reporting severe pain, 77% had pain every day.
  • 58% of the women reported sensory disturbances such as numbness, tingling, or a “pins and needles” feeling.

Radiation, but not chemotherapy, was associated with an increased risk for persistent pain.

Almost half of surveyed survivors reported experiencing pain related to their surgery two to three years after treatment. Younger patients were more likely than older ones to have chronic pain. Patients who had multiple lymph nodes removed in a procedure known as sentinel node dissectionwere most at risk.

Women in the study who had axillary lymph node dissection were almost twice as likely to have pain following surgery and five times as likely to have sensory disturbances than women who had sentinel node dissection, in which usually just one or a few of lymph nodes are removed to check for cancer instead of 10 or more.

The researchers conclude that the cause of most chronic pain following surgery is injury to key nerves during surgery.

If you have long-term intermittent or chronic pain following breast cancer treatment, discuss it with your surgeon and, or oncologist.

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