Back Pain and Cancer: How Are They Related?

Medically reviewed by Janet L. Abrahm, MD and James A. Tulsky, MD

Back pain can occur for a variety of reasons not related to cancer, such as injury or arthritis; in certain circumstances, back pain can be related to cancer. Though extremely uncommon, it may be a sign of certain cancers, a side effect of chemotherapy or other cancer therapies, a symptom of metastasis, or a latent side effect of treatment.

A primary bone cancer tumor in the spine can cause back pain, as can a number of cancers when they have metastasized, such as breast cancer, testicular cancer, colon cancer, and lung cancer. In fact, back pain is often the first symptom that people with lung cancer notice before they are diagnosed; around 25 percent of people with lung cancer list it as a symptom they experience at some point. A tumor in the lungs can put pressure on the spine, or can affect the nerves around the chest wall and spine.

A picture of a person's back.

Some people may not experience back pain prior to their diagnosis, but may deal with it during treatment. It is important to keep your treatment team updated on any pain you may experience. The pain may be related to the cancer itself and arise as a result of the disease spreading, or it may be a side effect of treatment. For example, Herceptin, a hormone therapy used to treat some breast cancers and gastric cancers, can cause back pain during or within hours of treatment, or a few days to weeks later.

Back pain may be a lasting issue for some cancer survivors. Pain does not necessarily mean there is cause for concern that the disease has spread, but it is still good to check with your doctor if you experience pain. Palliative care experts, who are focused on medicine that relieves symptoms of illness, can offer various methods of alleviating back pain, including pain medication, antidepressant medicines, physical therapy, braces, acupuncture, yoga and meditation, relaxation skills, nerve blocks, or surgery. Often, back pain lessens with regular exercise, stretching, and a healthy diet.

It is important to remember that wanting to control pain is not a sign of weakness. It is a way to help you feel better and stay active.

Learn more about pain management from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.