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Chronic Pain After Breast Cancer Surgery

Study Shows Nearly Half of Patients Report Pain 2 Years After Surgery
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"It's not constant pain, but it can be annoying and frustrating," McClusky tells WebMD. "Sometimes it's a shooting pain and other times it's an itch that you can't get to."

Women in the study who had axillary lymph node dissection were almost twice as likely to have pain following surgery and five times as likely to have sensory disturbances than women who had sentinel node dissection, in which usually just one or a few of lymph nodes are removed to check for cancer instead of 10 or more.

The researchers conclude that the cause of most chronic pain following breast cancer treatment is injury to key nerves during surgery.

"We confirmed that nerve damage is a major contributor to chronic pain," study co-researcher Henrik Kehlet, MD, PhD, tells WebMD. "This emphasizes the need to find more delicate surgical techniques to avoid nerve damage."

Sentinel Node Dissection 'Easier on Patients'

Breast cancer specialist Loretta S. Loftus, MD, MBA, of H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., tells WebMD that more and more surgeons are opting for sentinel node dissection because recovery time is much shorter and there is less chance of nerve damage.

"It is just much easier on patients," she says. "Women who have sentinel node dissection tend to be in and out of the hospital pretty quickly."

Loftus says doctors often fail to ask their patients about pain and patients often don't report it.

"At Moffitt, in our clinic, it's routine to ask every patient if they are experiencing pain when they enter the exam room," she says.

When facing her own decisions about treatment, Schneider was determined to be as aggressive as possible, in part because her mother died of the disease at the age of 61.

But she now regrets having the axillary procedure instead of the less invasive sentinel dissection, which was an option for her.

"I would tell anyone to ask a lot of questions and learn all they can if axillary dissection is suggested," she says.

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