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The Link Between Breast Cancer and Back Pain: Insights from Dr. Tammaro

Understanding connections between breast cancer and seemingly unrelated symptoms like back pain is crucial for early detection and effective intervention for those diagnosed with breast cancer. Dr. Yolanda Tammaro, a board-certified general surgeon with distinguished fellowship training in breast surgery, offers insight into the potential link between breast cancer symptoms and back pain. 

Continue reading to learn about the possible links between breast cancer and back pain, how back pain is diagnosed and treated, and tips for managing back pain with breast cancer.

Exploring the Connection Between Breast Cancer and Back Pain

While back pain is not typically an early sign of breast cancer, it can be a concerning symptom in the later stages of the disease due to bone metastasis, tumor location, or treatment-related side effects. As breast cancer progresses to an advanced or metastatic stage (stage 4), it can spread to other parts of the body, including the bones. When breast cancer spreads to the bones, it can weaken the bones and cause pain or even fractures in the ribs, spine, and hips. According to Dr. Tammaro, this bone metastasis of breast cancer can ultimately lead to back pain.

In some cases, a breast cancer tumor can directly press on the spinal cord or surrounding tissues in the back, causing direct back pain. Additionally, certain medications and therapies used to treat breast cancer, such as hormonal therapies like Faslodex and Femara, and chemotherapy drugs like Novantrone, can potentially cause back pain as a side effect.

Those with a breast cancer diagnosis experiencing any new or worsening pain should be evaluated by a doctor promptly. If you notice any of the following symptoms that persist for more than a few days, you should seek medical attention:

  • Persistent or severe back pain

  • Back pain accompanied by other breast cancer symptoms like a breast lump, nipple discharge, or changes in breast appearance

  • Back pain along with fatigue, nausea, constipation, irritability, thirst, or confusion

  • Headaches, dizziness, or seizures

  • Shortness of breath

  • Jaundice or abdominal swelling

Diagnosing and Treating Back Pain with Breast Cancer

If someone is experiencing back pain, especially in conjunction with other concerning symptoms or a prior breast cancer diagnosis, Dr. Tammaro recommends that they undergo several diagnostic tests. A physical examination can help identify the nature and location of the back pain. Imaging tests like X-rays, CT scans, MRI, or bone scans can reveal if there are any abnormalities, fractures, or lesions in the spine or other bones that could indicate metastatic spread from breast cancer. 

Blood tests can also provide clues, as elevated levels of certain biomarkers like alkaline phosphatase or calcium may signal bone metastasis. If the imaging tests show a suspicious area, a biopsy of the spine or other affected bone may be performed to definitively differentiate between a benign cause and cancerous lesions from metastatic disease.

In cases where an individual has a known breast cancer diagnosis, their clinical history is also a key factor. Dr. Tammaro shares that physicians will consider the breast cancer type, stage, previous treatments, and any new or changing symptoms holistically. Sudden onset of severe back pain in someone with metastatic breast cancer would raise high suspicion for disease progression, compared to someone with no cancer history presenting with typical musculoskeletal back pain.

“Breast cancer patients experiencing back pain from metastatic disease face a complex array of physical and emotional challenges,” says Dr. Tammaro. “In my practice, I firmly believe that a multidisciplinary treatment approach provides the most comprehensive and effective way to alleviate their suffering.”

By integrating conventional therapies like targeted chemotherapy, radiation, and bone-modifying agents with complementary modalities such as massage, acupuncture, and mindfulness practices, Dr. Tammaro shares, you can holistically address not just the cancer itself, but also the debilitating pain symptoms. 

Tips For Managing Back Pain with Breast Cancer

Dr. Tammaro recommends taking a multidisciplinary approach to managing back pain. Combining medical interventions with self-care strategies and alternative therapies can help manage breast cancer-related back pain. 

Some tips for managing back pain associated with breast cancer include:

  1. Stay active with gentle exercise and stretching, as tolerated, to reduce stiffness and improve mobility.

  2. Apply hot or cold packs to the painful areas to provide temporary relief.

  3. Maintain a healthy diet with adequate calcium and vitamin D to support bone health.

  4. Consider complementary therapies like massage, acupuncture, or yoga to help relax the muscles and promote healing.

  5. Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or guided imagery.

  6. Follow instructions carefully when using medications for pain relief, whether over-the-counter or prescription, to avoid interactions with cancer treatments.

  7. Consult a physical therapist for specific exercises and postural advice to ease back strain.

  8. Use supportive devices like braces or orthotics if recommended to stabilize the spine.

  9. Seek emotional support from counselors, therapists, or cancer support groups to cope with chronic pain.

  10. Communicate openly with your cancer care team about the severity and nature of your back pain to adjust treatment plans as needed.

Note: This article is designed to provide general information and not replace professional medical advice. Always discuss your options with your healthcare provider.

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