Breast Pain: Could It Mean Cancer?

by PJ Hamel Patient Expert

Soreness, tenderness, stabbing pain, burning, aching – you might apply any or all of these terms to the breast pain you feel, but what does it mean? And could it be dangerous? Let's break it down.

Breast pain is seldom a sign of breast cancer

Only about 5 percent of women with breast cancer experience pain in their affected breast prior to diagnosis. The exception to this is inflammatory breast cancer, a rare cancer that can begin with pain and soreness. So that pain you feel? It’s probably not cancer.

Pain that comes and goes regularly is often hormonal

Does your pain seem to appear the same time every month? It’s probably related to your menstrual cycle, when hormone surges can create swelling that, even when undetectable, can lead to tenderness, soreness, and pain.

Pain in both breasts is usually something systemic

Various issues can cause breast pain on both sides, including a fatty acid imbalance in your cells; medications affecting your hormones (including birth control pills, infertility treatments, and hormone replacement therapy), and certain antidepressants: Prozac and Zoloft, most commonly.

Check your bra

The solution to breast pain may be as simple as getting a new bra. Especially if you’re big-breasted, an unsupportive bra may cause shoulder and back pain that feels like it’s in your breasts; as well as chest-wall pain. A professional bra fitter can help.

Other health issues can feel like breast pain

A cardiac issue may cause pain in your left breast and armpit. Especially if you’re active (and even if you’re not), you may have unknowingly experienced a pulled muscle underneath your breast. And costochondritis, a cartilage inflammation around your ribs and breastbone, often feels like pain within the breast.

When to see a doctor

If the pain is accompanied by swelling, heat, itchiness, redness, soreness, or other signs that make it seem as if your breast is infected, see a doctor ASAP. If the pain is regular, steady or worsening, and lasts longer than several weeks, see your doctor to find out the cause and potentially get some relief.

PJ Hamel
Meet Our Writer
PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via