Surgery and radiotherapy can cause changes in sensation in the chest area, the armpit, and the shoulder and arm on the affected side.
This can include:
- sharp, shooting or burning pain
- aching pain
- sensitivity to touch or to the cold
- numbness or pins and needles.
These symptoms happen because the nerves in the chest area or armpit are cut or injured during surgery. It‘s not unusual to experience these symptoms, particularly after surgery to remove all the lymph nodes in the armpit. Symptoms usually improve with time, but in some women they may take months or years to get better.
If you have an aching pain in the breast, wearing a support bra during the day and a soft bra (no underwire) at night may help. Describing your symptoms clearly will help your doctor to prescribe the right painkiller for you. Simple painkillers, such as paracetamol or anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, can often control the pain. But if you have nerve pain (shooting or burning pain), you may need other types of painkillers.
Rarely, radiotherapy to treat the lymph nodes in the armpit or an area above the collarbone (clavicle) can damage the nerves to the arm causing pain, numbness and, in extreme cases, loss of movement (brachial plexus neuropathy). As radiotherapy techniques have improved, this problem is now much rarer.
Although this condition can't be reversed, the symptoms can be improved with drug treatment and physiotherapy. Physiotherapy involves doing exercises to strengthen the muscles and keep them supple. The physiotherapist will also be able to show you how to use slings or splints to support your arm, if needed.
If you're unable to work because of damage to your arm, you may be entitled to some benefits. We have information about employment rights, disability rights and financial issues for people with cancer. We also have information about working while caring for someone with cancer.
Treating nerve pain
Nerve pain can be treated in different ways. There is more information about in our section about peripheral neuropathy.
We have more information about different ways that pain can be treated in our section on controlling cancer pain.