Back pain isn’t a common symptom of breast cancer, but it can be a sign it has spread (metastasized). In some cases, spine-related pain convinces patients to go to the doctor under the assumption something is going on with their spine or its supporting muscles. While cancer limited to breast tissue doesn’t usually result in back pain, one of the most common areas for cancerous cells to spread to is the spinal column. Los Angeles spine surgery experts discuss some of the key things you need to know about possible connections between back pain and breast cancer.
How Does Metastasized Cancer Affect the Spine?
If breast cancer does spread to the spine, a patient will then have to manage treatment for both breast cancer and the cancer that has spread to part of the spine. Breast cancer that has spread to other areas is still referred to as “breast cancer,” even when it’s affecting other parts of the body like the bones of the spine. In some instances, nearby bones like the sacrum, a wedge-shaped bone at the base of the spine that connects with the hip bones to form the pelvis, are affected.
What Symptoms May Be Experienced?
Symptoms produced by cancer that has spread to the spine may vary based on what part of the backbone is affected. Oftentimes, patients assume their back pain has nothing to do with breast cancer, especially if they haven’t been diagnosed with breast cancer yet. By the time this type of cancer spreads, it’s stage 4 breast cancer. Symptoms may include:
- Back, neck, and/or leg or arm pain
- General weakness
- Numbness in arms or legs
How Is Metastasized Breast Cancer Diagnosed?
When back pain is the first noticeable symptom of breast cancer, diagnosis is usually a process of elimination to rule out other possible sources of spine-related pain such as disc herniation, muscle strain, and sciatica. If breast cancer is confirmed, diagnosing where it has spread to typically involves:
- Blood tests to confirm if the cancer is in bone tissues in the spine
- Bone scans to identify which part of the spine is affected
- MRI and CT scans to determine if soft tissues around the backbone are affected
What Are the Treatment Options?
Treating both breast cancer and back pain can be challenging. Back pain caused by cancer is often treated with radiation therapy to destroy the cancer cells. If the spine itself has been damaged, additional treatments may be necessary. Some patients with cancer that has metastasized to the spine benefit from:
- Photon radiation therapy (an advanced form of radiation therapy)
- Chemotherapy and hormone therapy drugs to treat the breast cancer
- Bisphosphonates to prevent spinal fractures
- Opiates for severe pain with careful monitoring due to addiction risk
- Steroid drugs to treat back pain caused by swelling in the affected area
- Non-drug treatments such as hot/cold applications, mental distraction, and natural wellness therapies
Patients with a family history of breast cancer should pay attention to any back pain that doesn’t have a clear or suspected source. The same is true if typical breast cancer symptoms such as a detectable lump and swelling in the armpit are accompanied by back pain. Even if back pain isn’t related to cancer, it shouldn’t be ignored if it’s not going away on its own.
When back pain is severe enough to require a surgical procedure, there are a wide array of possible treatments available. At The Spine Institute, we specialize in many different minimally invasive procedures, from spinal decompression to XLIF surgery. Los Angeles patients shouldn’t hesitate to call 310-828-7757 if they’re seeking a solution to alleviating their chronic pain. Get in touch today to schedule an in-person evaluation.