Breast Cancer and Pain: Each to Her Own

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Serious illness is often associated with pain. But physical discomfort is just one of the ways pain manifests itself in breast cancer; mental and emotional pain are just as present, and often even harder to face.  

    Pain comes in many flavors.

    There’s the sudden, searing pain of a heart attack; the constant ache of spinal arthritis; the nightmare of a migraine headache.

    But pain with breast cancer isn’t a given – unless you’re talking the pain of fear, and loss, and despair. And those are pains that can’t be soothed by popping an ibuprofen.

    The physical pain of breast cancer usually doesn’t kick in till treatment begins. Some women report breast pain prior to their cancer diagnosis; but for most, the lump they feel is just that: something palpable, rather than painful.

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    Surgery brings with it the usual attendant pains: of IV lines, incisions, swelling. Chemo can result in aching muscles, painful feet, and mouth and throat pain surpassing even your worst-ever sore throat.

    Radiation? Think of a very bad sunburn. And post-treatment hormone therapy adds painful joints to the list of physical ailments.

    If cancer spreads to bones, pain can be severe, and near constant. Thankfully, most of us never experience the brutality of stage 4 (terminal) breast cancer; these days, the overall mortality rate for the disease is under 15%.  

    Still, there’s not a survivor alive who’d claim that breast cancer was a painless experience. Even if she’s sailed through surgery, didn’t need chemo, had an easy radiation experience, and found hormone therapy a piece of cake, the mental and emotional pain that started when she first heard the words “You have cancer” remain constant for years.

    What’s the single underlying element in the cancer experience that affects us all?


    The terror of dying, first of all. Fear of leaving family behind – family that needs you.

    There’s fear of the unknown: what will I look like after surgery? How hard will chemo be?

    And fear of change. How will my friends treat me? Will I still be able to coach T-ball?

    And then there’s fear of loss. I don’t want to lose my hair. Or my job. Or my life.

    Fear is emotionally painful, perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the cancer experience. It comes out of nowhere, hitting like a tornado in the middle of the night. We’re plunged into sudden blackness, sure we can never cope with what life has handed us.

    And then… the sun rises. Things look better. We carry on, somehow, until the next time fear attacks – and we deal with it again. And again.

    While we can deal with the emotion of fear, it’s tougher to cope with the objects of that fear: loss, and change.

    Loss is another thing that comes in many flavors.  Loss of at least some of your breast, and possibly loss of your hair, are just the beginning.

    There’s the loss of control we experience during treatment. We’re no longer in charge of our own lives, as we move from MRI to biopsy to surgery in quick succession: vacation plans cancelled, the family reunion delayed. Six weeks of daily radiation? That’ll throw a monkey wrench into any semblance of a normal life.

  • And there’s the unexpected loss of friends. It’s an insider’s secret we all learn, sooner or later: some of your best friends desert you during cancer. They just can’t take it: the physical changes, the visceral fear (think “C word”), the specter of death.

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    Loss of confidence is a more subtle thing. Suddenly, your lifelong belief in your own good health is no longer a given. You’re not sure you can work at the pace you’ve always maintained, nor multitask as effectively – or at all.

    Do I still look OK? Am I attractive to my partner?

    And then there’s change. Which is both inevitable – and painful.

    You’d finally shifted from being your mother’s daughter, to her “mother” – taking care of her as she’s aged and become unable to care for herself. Now, your capacity as caretaker severely diminished by cancer, Mom’s trying to take care of you again.

    The easy camaraderie you had with co-workers is gone. They approach you with caution, discomfort in their eyes, not knowing what to say. A pall hangs over every conversation, as you see them struggling with whether it’s OK to gossip, or tell a joke, or even to smile.

    And here’s the biggest change of all: you have cancer. You’ve stepped over that line in the sand: survivors on one side, “regular” people on the other. You have a disease that might kill you, and you’ll live with that fact for the rest of your life.

    Pain. It’s not just physical.

    But thankfully, physical or emotional, pain almost always fades.

    Time heals; it really does. Your body, mind, and soul can only exist with high levels of stress for so long, before you build up resistance, and form some callouses.

    Cancer is no longer the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning. And some days, if you’re lucky, you don’t think of it at all. It’s with you… but doesn’t consume you.

    Another day begins. You kiss your daughter goodbye as she heads off to school. You grab a cup of coffee and drive to work.

    Life goes on. And we go with it.


Published On: August 30, 2012