If you’ve undergone breast cancer surgery such as a lumpectomy, mastectomy, or lymph node removal, you’re likely no stranger to pain. Some people feel post-surgical pain around the ribs. “Has anyone else felt pain in their rib cage after a lumpectomy?” one MyBCTeam member asked.
Most people experience pain after breast cancer surgery that goes away as they recover, but for 20 percent of people, this pain persists longer. In this article, we explore potential causes of rib cage pain after breast cancer surgery, when to see a doctor, and what you can do to manage this symptom.
As part of breast cancer treatment, many people undergo surgery to remove tumors, breast tissue, and lymph nodes in the chest and the armpit. Lingering pain after this type of surgery isn’t uncommon. One study found that 50 percent of people had mild pain and 16 percent had moderate to severe pain one year after breast cancer surgery.
Some MyBCTeam members who have undergone these procedures discuss the pain they experience afterward. For some members, rib cage pain begins months after breast cancer surgery. “I had a lumpectomy in July,” wrote one member. “In September, I noticed a pain in my rib when I stretched out my left arm.”
Another shared their story of long-lasting pain after breast reconstruction surgery. “I had bilateral mastectomies a year ago, and I still have a lot of issues with rib pain,” they shared.
“The pain isn’t constant,” a third member shared in regard to post-lumpectomy pain. “It’s just occasional sharp jabbing pain, like a knife under that breast and sometimes under my arm on that side.”
For others, pain is achy, dull, or tender. Accurately describing the type of pain you’re experiencing can help your doctor determine what might be causing your pain and the best way to treat it.
There are many reasons why someone may experience rib pain after breast cancer surgery. Keep reading to learn about common pain-related side effects of breast cancer surgery that may be felt in the rib cage area.
Post-mastectomy reconstruction syndrome (PMRS), also called “iron bra syndrome,” is a common side effect experienced by nearly half of people recovering from breast cancer surgery. The term is used to describe chronic pain that persists for at least three months after breast cancer-related surgery. It includes symptoms such as:
One member who had breast-conserving surgery wrote, “I asked my surgeon about it, and she said she’s not surprised at my pain because she really had to work to free the tumor from my pectoral muscle.”
Numbness, tingling, or shooting pain can be signs of neuropathy (nerve damage). Nerve pain usually goes away on its own after several weeks or months and begins shortly after surgery.
A painful, discolored, swollen leg that’s warm to the touch could indicate a blood clot, which is a life-threatening complication of surgery. If this symptom is accompanied or followed by shortness of breath or chest pain, it could indicate that the clot has spread to your lungs.
Edema (swelling), warmth, pain, fever, or fluid drainage from your wound are signs of an infection that should be treated right away.
People who experience bone pain after cancer treatment may worry about recurrence (cancer returning) and metastasis (the spread of cancer). Recurrence risk depends on breast cancer type, cancer stage, treatment, and individual factors. If you’re concerned that your cancer may have returned, speak to your oncologist. They may want to conduct scans or other testing to ensure you’re still cancer-free.
“They conducted a bone scan to ensure the rib pain wasn’t cancer,” shared one member. “Thankfully, it was clean.”
Rib pain may also be unrelated to breast cancer or treatment. Other common causes of rib cage pain include:
Regardless of what may be causing your rib cage pain, it’s best to speak to your doctor if your pain is ongoing, extreme, recurring, or negatively affecting your quality of life.
Rib cage pain after breast cancer treatment can range from mild to excruciating. Depending on how severe your pain is, there are different treatment options to consider. It’s important to notify your surgeon about your pain and ask for their medical advice on how to manage it.
If you’re experiencing chronic pain, keep a diary of your symptoms to notice what factors make it worse or better. From there, you can make lifestyle changes to prevent your rib cage pain. For example:
For some, lifestyle changes aren’t enough to manage pain. If that’s your experience, speak to your surgeon about medications. Pain medication options may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or drugs to reduce nerve pain (like amitriptyline or gabapentin).
For people experiencing chronic and severe nerve pain, nerve surgery is another option to decrease or stop nerve pain for long periods of time. Speak to your oncologist, breast surgeon, or primary care doctor about these and other choices to help manage your rib cage pain.
MyBCTeam is the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones. More than 64,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences with others who understand life with breast cancer.
Have you experienced rib pain after breast cancer surgery? Do you have tips on how to manage it? Share your experience in the comments below, or join the conversation by posting on your Activities page.