Are You Having Breast Cancer Pain?

Breast pain can be stressful and concerning, especially if you are not sure what is causing it. Breast pain occurs for most people at one point or another. Knowing more about it and when it may signal something serious can help you take an active role in your healthcare.

This article will explain times when breast cancer is painful, what it may be indicating, and whether you are at higher risk for breast disease.

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Experiencing Breast Pain

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

The truth is that breast cancer is a disease that hides within breast tissue. Breast cancer doesn't usually begin by causing breast pain, but if the cancer becomes extensive or advanced, 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 nonhormonal causes. Other benign conditions that can cause breast pain include breast cysts, fibroadenomas, or blocked milk ducts. And even though the pain with these conditions can be troubling, it is not usually dangerous.

Statistics on Breast Cancer and Pain

A breast tumor—a hard clump of breast cancer cells—doesn't usually cause breast pain unless it reaches the size of 2 centimeters (almost 0.8 inches) in diameter or greater. But a tumor can be larger than 2 centimeters and still not cause pain.

For many women, breast pain is not their reporting symptom. One study found that only 6% of women reported breast pain as their main symptom. While most women with breast cancer report that a breast lump was their main symptom, 1 in 6 report a different symptom, including breast pain.

How Breast Cancer Pain May Feel

While many types of breast pain are not cancerous, pain in only one breast may be cause for calling your doctor. Benign breast pain is often on both sides. (An exception is nonhormonally related breast pain, which is usually on one side.) 

Breast cancer pain can be persistent and very specific, usually hurting in just one spot. It is important to remember that breast cancer can be present in your breast before it causes pain. If you have other symptoms of breast cancer, such as nipple retraction (a nipple that turns inward), sudden swelling of your breast, or sudden skin changes, consult your healthcare provider for a clinical breast exam.

Inflammatory Breast Cancer and Pain

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

Metastatic Breast Cancer and Pain

Metastatic breast cancer may also cause pain. It could be from a larger tumor—these are often over 2 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 your abdomen and develop jaundice (a yellowing discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes).

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 press on nearby structures sooner than a tumor would in most women. In addition, hormone-induced breast pain is also 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. In fact, 1 in every 100 breast cancer diagnoses in the United States is in a man.

Does Breast Pain Increase Breast Cancer Risk?

Though it's uncommon, there are some painful breast conditions that may raise your risk of developing breast cancer. 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 pose little to no increased risk of breast cancer. Duct ectasia does not increase the risk of developing breast cancer, and while simple fibroadenomas do not increase the risk of breast cancer, complex fibroadenomas only slightly increase the risk.

When to See Your Healthcare Provider

It's important to talk to your healthcare provider 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% of women experienced breast pain at some time in their life that interfered with work and family activities. Make sure to talk to your healthcare provider if you are experiencing any unusual discomfort.

Summary

Breast pain can be concerning, especially if it develops suddenly. While breast pain doesn't often mean breast cancer, sometimes it may signal that something is not quite right. Even if the pain is not caused by breast cancer, the pain can negatively impact your quality of life. It is important to speak with your healthcare provider about your breast pain.

A Word From Verywell

Just as there is a popular misconception that a painful lump can't be breast cancer, there are many misunderstandings surrounding breast conditions and their symptoms, as well as breast cancer. If you have concern over any breast changes or pain, trust your instincts and call your healthcare provider. Listen to your body. Find a healthcare provider who carefully listens to your concerns. If you are not taken seriously, find another provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is breast pain a sign of cancer?

    It can be for some people, but not always. Breast cancer can be painless, and breast pain can have different underlying causes, many of which are not cancer.

  • Can breast cancer cause back pain?

    While back pain is not typically a symptom of breast cancer, if breast cancer metastasizes (spreads), it can cause back pain. A common site of breast cancer metastasis is the bones. If this occurs, it may cause back pain due to cancer in the spine or lower pelvis.

  • How do I know if my breast pain is serious?

    The only way to find out whether your breast pain is a result of something serious is to see your healthcare provider. Your doctor will perform a clinical breast exam, order imaging tests, if necessary, and determine what may be causing the pain. Breast pain can have lots of different causes, many of them being benign and temporary.

  • Can anxiety cause painful breasts?

    Yes, anxiety and stress can cause painful breasts. Talk with your healthcare provider if you suspect stress or anxiety may be playing a role in your breast pain.

15 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
Originally written by
Pam Stephan
Pam Stephan is a breast cancer survivor.
Learn about our editorial process