Medical News Today: What to know about breast cancer and back pain

Back pain is unlikely to be an early symptom of breast cancer, but it can be a factor in the later stages of the disease. Medication and treatment for breast cancer can also be causes. We find out more about the links between the disease and back pain.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women in the United States with 252,710 estimated new cases in 2017. There is a good chance of recovery if the disease is found early.

Women aged 45 years old and above, and those who have a family history of the disease, are recommended to have breast cancer screening. All women should do a breast self-exam regularly to check for any changes that could indicate breast cancer.

How are breast cancer and back pain linked?

Woman sitting on bed suffering back pain because of breast cancer,
Metastatic breast cancer may cause back pain, though it is not the only cause.

Breast cancer that has reached an advanced stage is known as metastatic or stage 4 breast cancer. This classification means that cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Back pain is one symptom of metastatic breast cancer and can appear in the later stages of the disease.

But back pain is also common in the population, and there are many other reasons for it to happen, such as pulling a muscle.

There are three key causes of back pain linked to breast cancer:

  1. Breast cancer that has spread to the bones may weaken them and cause pain.
  2. A tumor that is growing can push into healthy tissue, which may be painful.
  3. Some medication and therapies used to treat breast cancer can cause back pain.

Finding the cause of back pain will determine the best treatment.

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Back pain is unlikely to be an early symptom of breast cancer but could be an indication that it is spreading.

Some medications for the disease can be the cause of back pain if breast cancer is already diagnosed. These include:

  • Faslodex and Femara: These are hormonal therapies to control levels of estrogen.
  • Novantrone: A chemotherapy medication that kills the cancer cells.
  • Kisqali: A medication that stops the cancer cells from dividing and growing.

It may be possible to change to a different medication or therapies that do not cause back pain. A switch is not always an option, however, so a person may need to find other ways to manage their pain.

A doctor will check for advanced breast cancer with a physical examination and by asking about symptoms. If further tests are needed, the most common are:

  • CT scan: This takes X-rays of areas of the body from different angles.
  • MRI scan: This uses a machine to scan the body using radio waves.
  • Ultrasound scan: A device giving off sound waves builds a picture of the inside of the body.
  • Bone scans and positron emission tomography (PET) scans: These two tests use radioactive substances to highlight areas of cancer.

All these tests can show whether there are cancerous growths in the body that are the cause of back pain.

If advanced breast cancer is diagnosed, a doctor should give clear information and advice on treatment options and support.

How do you know if the pain is unrelated?

Mature patient speaking to nurse.
Back pain is a common problem, and has many potential causes aside from breast cancer. If back pain is present alongside the signs of breast cancer, a diagnosis should be sought.

Back pain has many causes, from straining muscles when lifting something heavy, to poor posture. It is not always easy to determine what is the cause.

Pain in any part of the back is common. If someone does not have a diagnosis of breast cancer and is in a low-risk group, back pain is unlikely to be a symptom of the disease.

Tests and exams to find the early signs of breast cancer are known as screening. This is recommended for people with a family history of the disease and women of 45 years of age or more.

Someone who is in these higher risk groups should make themselves aware of the symptoms of breast cancer.

If back pain is experienced alongside other symptoms of breast cancer, or the disease has already been diagnosed, a person should see a doctor for further advice and testing.

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Is the back the first place for it to spread?

The most common sites for breast cancer to spread to are:

  • lungs
  • brain
  • liver
  • bone

Cancer cells move into healthy tissue to form new tumors, and this will usually start with the tissue nearest to where the cancer first formed.

Breast cancer may not spread to all of these areas of the body. The bones most commonly affected are:

  • ribs
  • spine
  • pelvis
  • upper bones in the arms and legs
  • skull

If breast cancer has spread to the bones, a person is likely to feel pain or an ache in that place, and this may include the back.

Treatment and self-care

Woman performing yoga stretches at home to improve back pain.
Gentle stretches and exercise may help to ease back pain.

The first steps to treating back pain at home are:

  • taking anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen
  • doing gentle back exercises and stretches
  • applying a hot or cold pack to the area
  • trying to relax to ease muscle tension

If the pain goes away after these treatments, it is likely that it has been caused by a strain or injury.

But a person should go and see their doctor if treating back pain at home does not work after a few days, or the pain is particularly bad.

Back pain caused by stage 4 breast cancer may be treated with surgery or radiation therapy. This can prevent bone fractures or reduce pain when a tumor is pressing on the spine.

General treatments for advanced breast cancer include chemotherapy, hormonal therapies, and 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 person can seek advice and support from a doctor to make a plan to manage and reduce their pain. This type of symptom can range from severe or occasional pain, to emotional distress caused by the disease.

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If someone has breast cancer, any pain can be worrying. It is good to remember that back pain is very common and unlikely to be caused by cancer that is getting worse. A person should seek medical advice if the back pain lasts for a long time or is severe.

A person with the disease should be aware of the symptoms of stage 4 breast cancer. At this advanced stage of the disease, it is not usually curable. However, a wide range of treatments can reduce the growth of tumors and help with pain.

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