(USA TODAY) -- Nearly half of breast cancer survivors suffer from persistent pain, even two to three years after surgery, a study shows.
Almost 60% of the 3,253 women surveyed experience other symptoms of nerve damage, such as numbness or tenderness, according to a study of all Danish women treated for breast cancer in 2005 and 2006.
Women under 40 and those who have more extensive surgery, such as a mastectomy, and radiation are the most likely to report pain, says the University of Copenhagen's Henrik Kehlet, senior author of the report in today's Journal of the American Medical Association.
Women also have more pain if surgeons remove many of the lymph nodes in their armpits, a common place for breast cancer to spread, the study says.
Fortunately, most breast cancer patients can ease their symptoms with over-the-counter pain relievers, says Loretta Loftus of Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, who co-wrote an accompanying editorial.
Kehlet says his study underscores the need to improve care, both by finding ways to reduce nerve damage during surgery and by learning why some women have so much pain and others do not.
Though it's not always possible to prevent chronic pain, doctors say women can reduce their risk.
Women should choose doctors who perform "sentinel-node" biopsies, says Moffitt's Christine Laronga, who co-wrote the editorial. In the procedure, surgeons remove and test one or a few key lymph node for malignant cells instead of automatically removing all of the nodes. If the sentinel node is cancer-free, surgeons leave the others in place. The procedure also reduces the risk of lymphedema, a painful swelling in the arm.