What could breast pain mean?

If you feel breast pain, does this mean you might have cancer? An expert explains

Breast cancer ribbon (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Breast cancer ribbon
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Breast pain is one of the most frequent complaints that women discuss with a breast surgeon during an exam. Dr. Jasmine Dagan, director of the Breast Surgery Unit at Hillel Yaffe Medical Center, explains whether breast pain can indicate cancer and when a check-up at a breast clinic is recommended.

Although we think of cancer as a modern disease, breast cancer is a very ancient disease and there’s a record of it dating back to the Stone Age. Unlike other diseases and the fact that it’s the most feminine organ, in addition to the health and physical aspects of the disease, breast cancer is also associated with deep emotional aspects of damage to body image and femininity.

Women who have had breast cancer share a "sisterhood," even if they were born in a completely different age and culture. 

Although medical advances and the vast knowledge gained have changed the course of the disease, and even more importantly have significantly improved the survival rate, there’s great anxiety and fear of the disease. So for many women, even a slight amount of breast pain is a cause for concern and is stressful.

Does breast pain indicate you should think that you have a malignant tumor?

Let's go ahead and say no.

Dagan explained that pain is an emotional and sensory feeling, and an unpleasant experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. Pain plays an important evolutionary role, as it’s designed to signal physical harm and serves as a defense mechanism for us. Therefore, naturally, the onset of breast pain can cause concern and anxiety about breast cancer.

Most women will experience breast pain at some point in their lives, with the most common time for this symptom being the fertility period.  

While a woman is fertile, there are cycles of hormonal and physiological changes in the woman's body whose function is sexual reproduction. 

"Every month there’s an increase in the secretion of estrogen, whose function is to prepare the woman's body for the absorption of the fetus by thickening the uterine lining and developing the milk ducts," Dagan explained.

She added that these physiological effects are related to a variety of symptoms, including abdominal pain, feeling bloated and pain in the breasts. As the estrogen level decreases, menstruation starts and most of the symptoms pass. 

"Therefore, breast pain that is not accompanied by additional symptoms, like fever, redness or the appearance of a lump is usually due to a natural physiological process of the body and isn’t a symptom that characterizes breast cancer,” she said.

However, several studies have found that 5% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have complained of breast pain without any accompanying symptoms. Therefore, if there is long-term breast pain, it’s advisable to consult a breast surgeon, and if necessary clarify matters through imaging tests.