Breast Pain! Is it Cancer?
Up to 70% of women complain of breast pain (mastalgia) at some point in their lives. As with most any breast symptom, women often seek medical advice, worrying pain may signal breast cancer.
Cyclical breast pain is most common and is related to menstrual cycle hormonal fluctuations. Cyclical pain is usually diffuse and affects both breasts. Non-cyclical breast pain ,however, affects fewer women and is usually in a single breast. Common causes include breasts cysts, fibrocystic changes, caffeine or tobacco use. Remedies are usually focused on treating the underlying causes. Extramammary pain, on the other hand, is pain referred to the breast from elsewhere in the body. There are countless causes, such as heartburn, angina, arthritis and infections, and again such pain does not mean there is a breast issue per se.
While studies linking breast pain and cancer are limited, a 2015 article in The Journal of Breast Health evaluated the link between mastalgia and breast cancer. This study found that while breast pain is cause for concern, there is no strong correlation between breast pain and breast cancer. Women with breast cancer were more likely to have abnormalities on their breast exam and severe, persistent, non-cyclical pain.
Some ways to help alleviate breast pain include well-fitting supportive brassieres. It is also important to wear a soft, supportive bra at night to support the breasts. Warm compresses, ice packs, or gentle massage have also been shown to help some women when experiencing breast pain. Non-steroidal medications and herbals such as Evening Primrose Oil (EPO) can also provide relief to 50% of women.
In summary, breast pain alone is not an indicator of breast cancer. If, however, pain persists for greater than 6 weeks, you should see a breast specialist for an examination and consider breast imaging to evaluate for cysts or lumps.
Emran Imami, MD, FACS, MBA
Founder of TEPAS™ Breast Center
Clinical Surgical Faculty, Burrell College of Medicine
3rd-year medical student, Burrell College of Medicine