Mastectomies and Phantom Pain: What You Need to Know

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Phantom pain is a commonly known term, but it’s generally associated with the loss of a limb or part of a limb. It’s less often talked about when the missing body part is a breast.

However, just because people aren’t talking about it doesn’t mean it’s not a common problem. Roughly 60 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer undergo a mastectomy or other surgery as part of treatment. A rather large number of those women experience phantom sensations in their missing breast or breasts after a mastectomy. Depending on age, that number could range from 12.7 percent to 66 percent. One study reports that as many as 80 percent of patients may experience this type of pain at some point. And that’s scary, considering the fact that phantom pain is something that can last a lifetime, not just for a few weeks while you’re recovering.

Not everyone experiences phantom sensations, of course, and they’re not always painful. For some, phantom sensations are even pleasurable. For others, there is no phantom sensation at all. But for those that experience painful phantom sensations, the struggle is real. According to a Johns Hopkins Medical Institution study, these unpleasant feelings can range anywhere from unpleasant itching (48 percent), pins and needles (29 percent), pressure sensation (24 percent) and throbbing (21 percent).

Phantom breast pain can occur in any part of the breast or surrounding areas, and they can happen anywhere from every day to just a few times a year. Having reconstructive surgery does not appear to decrease the rate of recurrence for phantom breast pain.

For those women who need a mastectomy either way, phantom pain is not something to worry about in advance, as you may or may not ever experience it. But if you have the option of whether or not to get a mastectomy as part of your treatment plan, the potential for phantom pain is just one more factor to consider while making your decision.

If you do experience phantom pain in your missing breast, you should know that there are treatments available, usually in the form of nerve pain medications, as the cause of phantom pain is mostly related to nerve damage. Psychological factors, however, often play a role as well. Talk to your doctor about your treatment options.

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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?