What to know about breast cancer and back pain
Back pain appears to be common with breast cancer. It is a symptom that usually appears in the later stages of the disease.
Read on to find out more about the link between breast cancer and back pain and what to do if you experience it.
Link between breast cancer and back pain
Metastatic breast cancer can involve back pain.
The earliest sign of breast cancer is often a lump in the breast. Many people receive effective treatment at this stage and do not develop other symptoms.
However, pain and additional symptoms will develop if the disease progresses.
Advanced stage breast cancer is known as metastatic or stage 4 breast cancer. This term means that cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Back pain is one of the symptoms of metastatic breast cancer. It can appear in later stages of the disease and can result from any of the following:
- breast cancer spreading to the bones, weakening them and causing pain
- a tumor putting pressure on other tissues
- some medications and therapies
Finding the cause of back pain will determine the best treatment.
If a person with breast cancer develops back pain, they should seek medical advice.
If a person with a diagnosis of breast cancer starts to experience back pain, they should see their doctor who will be able to help.
When they go for the visit, they should be ready to explain:
- how the pain feels, where it is, and how severe it is
- what seems to make it better or worse
- which medications they are already taking
Pain with breast cancer can result from:
- changes in the body due to cancer
- the use of certain medications
- missing doses of medications
- stress resulting from the illness
Medications for breast cancer that can cause back pain include:
- Faslodex and Femara, hormonal therapies that aim to control estrogen levels
- Novantrone, a chemotherapy drug that kills cancer cells
- Kisqali, which stops cancer cells from dividing and growing
A doctor will carry out a physical examination and ask about symptoms. They may recommend a scan to check for changes in the body.
Depending on the diagnosis, the doctor will advise on treatment options and support.
Anyone who has back pain alongside a diagnosis or other symptoms of breast cancer should see a doctor for further advice and testing. They may need to adjust their treatment. A doctor may also suggest more effective pain relief.
Is the back the first place for it to spread?
The most common sites for breast cancer to spread to are:
- the lungs
- the liver
- the bones
- the brain
As cancer cells rapidly grow out of control, they move into healthy tissues to form new tumors. This spread usually starts with the tissue nearest to where the cancer initially began. When this happens, people may start to experience symptoms in the new area.
When breast cancer spreads to the bones, it can affect:
- the ribs
- the spine
- the pelvis
- bones in the upper arms and thighs
- the skull
A person is likely to feel pain or an ache in the place where cancer has spread, which may include the back.
Other signs that cancer is affecting the bones include:
Other signs that cancer is spreading include:
- headaches, dizziness, and possibly seizures if it involves the brain
- shortness of breath, which may indicate that it has spread to the lungs
- jaundice and abdominal swelling, when cancer spreads to the liver
A person can often treat back pain at home, but if it persists or gets worse, they should see their doctor.
Home care for back pain includes taking anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen.
However, a person should speak to their doctor before taking any medications, as these may interact with existing treatment.
Gentle stretches and exercise may help ease back pain.
Other options include:
- doing gentle back exercises and stretches
- applying a hot or cold pack to the area
- following a healthful diet, with plenty of vitamin D and calcium
- avoiding lifting heavy items
- maintaining a healthy weight to prevent more strain on the back
- having chiropractic therapy
- seeking distraction, such as spending time with friends or watching a movie
Relaxation techniques may help reduce pain due to stress. Options that have shown promise include:
Exercise and activity can also help reduce stiffness.
If treating back pain at home does not work after a few days, or the pain is particularly bad, a person may wish to see their doctor.
Options for relieving pain when cancer spreads to the bones from the breast include:
- prescription pain relief medication
- radiation therapy
- bisphosphonates, such as pamidronate (Aredia) or zoledronic acid (Zometa)
- denosumab (Xgeva)
Other treatments for advanced breast cancer include:
- hormonal therapies
- targeted therapy
These methods all aim to reduce the size of tumors or prevent them growing, help with symptoms, and extend someone's life.
A doctor can help a person make a plan to manage and reduce their pain. Effective treatment will not only improve the pain, but it can also help improve sleep, appetite, mood, and quality of life.
For a person with breast cancer, any pain can be worrying. They may be afraid of seeming to fuss over small matters, but getting help for pain can make it easier to manage other aspects of life.
A person should seek medical advice if they have back pain that lasts for a long time or is severe.
For a person with stage 4 breast cancer, a range of treatment options can help to improve their comfort and quality of life, and some treatments can extend a person's life.