Managing Pain When You Have Metastatic Breast Cancer

Learn why MBC causes pain and how to talk about pain with your healthcare providers.

Medically reviewed in May 2022

Metastatic breast cancer can cause pain. Pain can also be a side effect of some medications used to treat metastatic breast cancer. If you are living with MBC and experiencing pain, it is important to talk to your healthcare providers about what you are experiencing.

While there are a number of approaches to alleviating pain, choosing the best approach will depend on a number of factors. These factors include the location of the pain, the severity of the pain, the medications you are taking to treat MBC, and other factors about your health.

Here, we look at some information that can help you prepare for a conversation with your healthcare provider, as well as some questions to ask during your appointment.

How MBC and MBC treatments may cause pain
Metastatic breast cancer and certain cancer treatments can cause pain for different reasons and in different locations in the body.

  • Tumors can press against nerves or grow into nerves. This can damage or compress nerves, causing pain, as well as other symptoms like tingling, numbness, and muscle weakness. The term for this is neuropathy.
  • Some chemotherapy drugs can also cause neuropathy. Chemotherapy drugs damage healthy cells along with cancerous cells. Certain chemotherapy drugs can damage nerve cells.
  • Advanced breast cancer often spreads to the bones. Bone metastases are associated with chronic pain and episodes of severe pain. Other symptoms can include anemia, fractures, increase susceptibility to infection, excessive amounts of calcium in the blood, and decreased mobility.
  • Cancer that has spread to the spinal column can result in spinal column compression. While this is not common, it is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment. Severe back pain, muscle weakness, difficulty with balance and movement, and problems with bowel and bladder control are symptoms of spinal compression.
  • Headaches and seizures are a common symptom of metastases that affect the brain and the surrounding tissues inside the skull.

Keep in mind that metastatic breast cancer is different for every person. Tumors will be different sizes and located in different areas of the body and may cause different symptoms.

Getting relief from pain
It is important to discuss pain and other symptoms with your healthcare providers, even if pain is mild. Tell your healthcare providers about:

  • The location of the pain.
  • When the pain occurs and for how long.
  • The severity of the pain.
  • How the pain is interfering with your normal life and activities.
  • Anything you’ve noticed that makes the pain worse.
  • Anything you’ve noticed that eases the pain.
  • Pain medications and other remedies that you are using.
  • All medications you are taking and the medications you have taken in the past.
  • Any other symptoms or discomforts.

Your healthcare providers can help you identify the cause of the pain and what can be done to relieve pain. The typical approach to treating cancer pain is a therapy that offers the most pain relief with the lowest risk of side effects. There are a number of different medications that your healthcare providers may prescribe to relieve pain.

Your healthcare providers may also recommend other strategies for coping with pain or working with a pain specialist. Talking to other people who have MBC about the ways they cope with pain can also be helpful, and if you are not already, consider participating in a support group.

NCBI Bookshelf. "Pain management in metastatic breast cancer.", 2012.
William Irvin Jr., Hyman B. Muss, and Deborah K. "Symptom Management in Metastatic Breast Cancer." The Oncologist, 2011. Vol. 16, No. 9.
Cancer.Net. "Nerve Problems or Neuropathy." "Neuropathy."
National Cancer Institute. "Long-Term Nerve Damage Possible after Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer."
Aaron P. Bloom, Juan M. Jimenez-Andrade, et al. "Breast Cancer-Induced Bone Remodeling, Skeletal Pain, and Sprouting of Sensory Nerve Fibers." Journal of Pain, 2011. Vol. 12, No. 6.
Juan Miguel Jimenez-Andrade,1 William G. Mantyh, et al. "
Jimenez-Andrade, Juan Miguel, et al. “Bone cancer pain.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2010.
Chitra Nair, Shrijit Panikkar, and Arupratan Ray. "How not to miss metastatic spinal cord compression." British Journal of General Practice, 2014. Vol. 64, Issue 626.
Ricardo Costa and Priya Kumthekar. "Management of Central Nervous System Metastases in Breast Cancer." The Breast: Comprehensive Management of Benign and Malignant Diseases. Fifth Edition, 2018.
CancerCare. "Opening the Door to Effective Pain Management: Getting the Facts and Getting Help."
Susan G. Komen. "Managing Pain Related to Metastatic Breast Cancer."

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