Could breast pain be cancer?


If you suffer from the misery of breast pain every month - or notice a dull ache when stretching in an awkward position - you are not alone.

Breast pain - known as mastalgia - affects two out of three women at some point in their lives. For some, it appears as a mild niggle or dull ache. For others it can become so severe the slightest knock is agony.

So what is breast pain and when should we worry?

According to a recent survey by Dr Eleanor Clarke, advisor to the Breast Awareness Campaign, one in twelve visits to a doctor are for breast pain, but most are unlikely to lead to breast cancer.

Rather than being one condition, breast pain tends to fall into two groups: cyclical and non-cyclical. With cyclical pain, breast tissue is very sensitive to fluctuating levels of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone throughout the menstrual cycle, with pain arriving around one week before a period is due.

It is also thought that women who suffer from cyclical breast pain have low levels of gamolenic acid (GLA) - fatty acids found in our bodies which affects the way our bodies respond to its own hormones causing greater breast sensitivity.

Anyone can suffer from cyclical breast pain, although it tends to affect those in their thirties. And, it doesn't matter what size your breasts are - women with the smallest cup size can suffer just as much as those with larger breasts.

Non-cyclical pain, on the other hand, has various explanations. Women in their early stages of pregnancy often report aching breasts due to hormonal changes.

Another symptom of non-cyclical breast pain is inflammation of the joint between the top rib and breastbone - a joint condition called Tietze's syndrome which can make the breast bone feel sore and tender.

Non-cyclical pain can also be caused by breastfeeding. Nursing mothers often report tender hot spots - or abscesses - when feeding, This is when milk ducts in the breasts become blocked.

If you suddenly notice lumps in one or both breasts, don't panic. It could be a cyst - fluid-filled sacs in the breast tissue, often associated with pain.

Although cysts can naturally disappear, it's worth seeking advice from your doctor who will draw off fluid using a needle which results in instant relief. Once the fluid has gone, the cyst usually disappears.

On top of this, some women get breast pain when they start hormone replacement therapy (HRT). This may be linked to the synthetic hormone progestogen, which is added for part of the cycle.

If you are worried about a lump, it is important to check it out. Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers among British women and there are 40,000 newly diagnosed cases each year. However, deaths from breast cancer have reduced by one third over the last decade, thanks to breast cancer screening.

It is important to realise that some women's breasts feel quite lumpy naturally, says Dr Eleanor Clarke. 'If you notice a pain or/and lump that is different in texture from the rest of your breast, consult your doctor who may refer you to a breast clinic.'

But, says Dr Clarke, nine out of ten women referred to a breast clinic do not have cancer. 'On the whole cancerous lumps tend to be quite hard. In most cases, lumps tend to be benign (non-cancerous) or a cyst - which can be easily removed.'

'If the pain affects both breasts, particularly if you are under 35 and the pain occurs before your period - or if both breasts feel the same and there is no lump - then cancer is very unlikely.'

'Women's breasts vary tremendously,' says Dr Eleanor Clarke. 'Seek advice if a lump feels different, or if one breast looks fuller or more dimpled. Only you will be the best judge of that.'

Click below to discover how to treat cyclical and non-cyclical breast pain, and when to see a doctor

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