Does Breast Pain Mean Cancer?
If you’re the type who’s prone to worrywarting (hi!), it’s easy to go to the worst-case scenario when a mysterious ache appears—like, say, a pain in your breast that you never experienced before. Right away your mind flashes: CANCER and you hit the doc on speed dial. But know this, you’re not alone. Breast pain is a super-common complaint for which patients seek out medical attention: In fact, studies show 70% to 80% of breast issues that women seek their doctor's advice on are related to pain.
But before you call the oncologist in a panic, slow your roll. That discomfort you feel is a) likely not cancer and b) could be caused by something fleeting or harmless. The reality is, breast pain can be caused by so many factors—your period, a bra that’s too small or too big, even the type of medication you’re taking—and the good news is most of them are generally nothing to worry about.
And here are the facts: The American College of Radiology reports breast pain is infrequently associated with breast cancer. In fact, studies show that the incidence of breast cancer in patients with breast pain as their only symptom is 0% to 3%. You can officially take a deep breath. To help you chill (studies show anxiety can exacerbate the pain response), and really know when it’s time to call the doctor, we’ve decoded breast pain associated with medication to menstrual cycles—and everything in between.
If you feel a dull, achy, heavy pain that comes with breast swelling in the time leading up to your period, chances are it’s due to cyclic breast pain, which means it’s coming courtesy of your menstrual cycle. But don’t worry, it should go away once you get your period or soon after. “A woman will experience fluctuations in hormones, specifically estrogen and progesterone, right before having her period, and this can lead to breast pain and soreness usually three to five days before her period begins,” says Christina Y. Kang, DNP, a certified nurse practitioner at The Hoffberger Breast Center at Mercy College in Baltimore.
Unbeknownst to you, the meds you’re taking could be the culprit. “There are three major categories of medications that may cause breast pain,” says Monisha Bhanote, M.D., a triple board-certified physician with expertise in integrative medicine, internal medicine, and anatomic/clinical pathology in Jacksonville Beach, FL. “These include hormonal agents such as oral contraceptives and estrogen replacement therapy, psychiatric medications such as SSRIs and antipsychotics, and cardiovascular drugs such as spironolactone (which sometimes is prescribed for acne), and digoxin,” she says.
What you eat (chocolate, salty foods, caffeine) could actually be causing your aches, Dr. Kang says. Experts believe that large quantities of caffeine, in particular, can lead to changes in hormone levels that may affect the formation of breast cysts or cause breast pain, especially in women with fibrocystic breasts. That’s because caffeine causes blood vessels to dilate, increasing breast swelling and pain. A study from Duke University showed that 61% of women with breast pain who eliminated caffeine eased their aches.
“Some women have lumpy breast tissue called fibrocystic breasts, which may be more painful during certain times of the month,” Dr. Kang says. These lumps are usually not cancer, but are cysts filled with fluid, which can become enlarged and painful during hormonal changes, Dr. Bhanote says. “If the pain persists and does not resolve, or you palpate a firm or irregular mass outside of your normal breast tissue, you should contact your provider for further evaluation,” Dr. Kang says.
Wearing the wrong size bra isn't just awkward, it could be causing you real discomfort. A bra that’s too tight or too loose isn’t adequately supporting the tissue, or may be compressing it in an uncomfortable way, causing unnecessary breast pain. And if you are in the wrong bra, you’re in good company. One study reports 80% of women are wearing bras that don’t fit properly—with a whopping 70% in a too-small size. Bottom line: Get your girls properly fitted.
When to Call Your Doc
In most cases, breast pain is nothing to worry about and will likely go away. However, if the pain lasts more than a couple of weeks, is getting worse, and does not go away after your cycle, it’s time to call the doctor, Dr. Bhanote says. She also suggests seeking medical attention if there are any changes in your breasts, including nipple discharge, nipple retraction, breast skin redness, breast swelling, or a palpable lump.
Bottom Line on Breast Pain
If you’re female, at some point in your life you will likely experience pain in one or both of your breasts. It’s natural to worry, but more times than not, the pain is not anything life-threatening and will likely go away on it own, or with a few lifestyle modifications. But, look, we’re talking about your breasts. So if they hurt and you are worried, it’s always better to get things checked out by a medical professional for peace of mind. One less thing for you to worry about!
- Understanding Breast Pain: American College of Radiology. (2018). “ACR Appropriateness Criteria Breast Pain.” acsearch.acr.org/docs/3091546/Narrative/
- The Correlation Between Breast Pain & Anxiety: Indian Journal of Surgery. (2016). “Effects of Mastalgia in Young Women on Quality of Life, Depression, and Anxiety Levels.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4875894/
- Caffeine & Breast Pain: Nurse Practitioner. (1989). “Caffeine restriction as initial treatment for breast pain.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2927749/#affiliation-1
- Bra Fit & Breast Pain: Chiropractic & Osteopathy. (2008). “Breast size, bra fit and thoracic pain in young women: a correlational study.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2275741/