Breast Cancer Survivors May Experience Ongoing Pain After Surgery

November 11, 2009

The current issue of JAMA has an article and editorial on the chronic pain experienced by some women following breast cancer surgery. This is not a topic I’ve personally read or heard much, so I was interested and surprised to read the editorial’s opening statement that “Chronic pain after breast cancer surgery occurs in approximately 50% of patients.”

The associated study paper in the journal provides more detail.  The research looked at 3,253 women in Denmark who had undergone unilateral (one-sided) breast cancer surgery in 2005-2006. The women were surveyed 2-3 years after surgery. Clinical data on the surgeries and follow-up was extracted from Danish registries, and women were surveyed about the presence or absence of pain and its location, severity, and frequency.

The authors found that 47% of the surveyed women reported pain. Of these women, 13%  reported severe pain; 39% reported moderate pain; and 48% reported light pain.

Among the 13% of women with severe pain, 77% experienced pain every day. Many of the women experiencing ongoing pain (28%) had additional contact with a physician to try to address the issue, or were taking analgesics or receiving other therapy in attempts to relieve the pain.

Younger women were more likely to report pain. There was no difference in rates of ongoing pain for mastectomy vs. breast conserving surgery, but women who had mastectomy had a higher risk of moderate to severe pain as opposed to lighter pain. Women who received adjuvant radiotherapy also had a higher risk of reporting pain. Additional women reported sensory disturbances or discomfort.

With nearly 50% of women experiencing chronic pain 2 to 3 years after surgery, it’s clear that more research on effective ways of controlling or preventing the pain needs to happen.