Maria Sykes
Maria Sykes
December 24, 2023 ·  10 min read

Doctors Kept Dismissing My Back Pain Until I Was Finally Diagnosed With Terminal Cancer

Tori Geib of Bellefontaine, Ohio suffered from chronic back pain. Since it’s estimated that about 80% of Americans will at some point experience back pain, it certainly wasn’t unusual when she sought medical attention.

Tori visited three different rheumatologists in attempts to find the real cause of her chronic back pain. She got all kinds of explanations from her doctors, including depression-related psychosomatic pain, fibromyalgia, or just too much stress at work.

“I almost felt like I was gaslighting myself. Was this all in my head? Surely all these doctors couldn’t be wrong; after all, they were the experts. But deep down, I knew this was real, physical pain. I didn’t know what was causing my back to hurt so badly, but I knew one thing: I didn’t feel like myself.”

But nothing seemed to solve her painful condition. Tori found herself in two urgent care facilities because of how unbearable her back pain was. She was treated with everything from steroids and NSAIDs to muscle relaxers and anti-depressants.

After a year of chronic back pain, Tori found a hard lump in her breast. She was able to book a mammogram the next day, and within two weeks, she found out she had breast cancer.

Read More: The 6 Early Signs of Breast Cancer You Need to KNow

“The news was devastating,” Tori remembers. But it was about to get worse. Tori went to Ohio State University in Colombus to see an oncologist. It was there she mentioned her chronic back pain and finally felt heard. The medical team conducted a CT scan and found that her breast cancer had metastasized to her spine.

“When I learned that the terrible pain in my back was due to metastatic cancer in my spine (and not fibromyalgia or overdoing it at work, as my previous doctors believed), I first wanted to hug my oncologist. Not because I was excited to have cancer, but because someone finally gave me an answer that explained why my back had hurt so much, confirming that it wasn’t all in my head.”

Unfortunately, Tori was diagnosed with terminal cancer. What’s more, one of her vertebrae had been subjected to so much pressure that it had fractured. She can’t help but think about all of the appointments that could have found the true cause of her pain much earlier.

“A note had been left in my medical records by one of the doctors I had seen for the back pain. It mentioned that “suspicious lesions” were found on my spine and hip bone after a scan I had a year earlier. No one ever followed up or told me about this.”

Today, Tori focuses on staying as healthy as possible, living her life to the fullest, and spreading the word about misdiagnoses.

“My treatment schedule is pretty rigorous. I sometimes have three or four appointments in a day. But staying alive is my full-time job now….

“Maintaining my quality of life is the biggest thing for me now. If I know quantity is going to be short, then the time I’m going to have is going to be good time. I’m always going to have a little bit of pain, but it’s about what I can tolerate, and I have a conversation going with my palliative care team, who is fantastic….

“I work with some advocacy groups like the Hear My Voice program from Living Beyond Breast Cancer to help raise awareness of metastatic breast cancer.”

Is shoulder blade pain a sign of cancer?

Inflammation and irritation in the upper back take place for a number of different reasons. For some people it is as simple as poor posture, for others it can be trauma due to an accident or sports injury. There are also medical conditions including herniated disc, arthritis, spinal degeneration, spinal stenosis, spondylitis, kidney stones or bone cancer that can lead to upper back pain. In most cases, upper back pain is associated with muscle irritation from poor posture or joint problems, which are not reasons to panic.

So back pain is back pain, right? Well, not exactly. Not all symptoms of shoulder blade pain are focused on the backside of the chest and upper abdominal area. There are other signs associated with back pain. Upper back pain with difficulty breathing may be a sign of heart attack, while upper back pain with a fever could be a sign of an infection.

Here are some other symptoms that are common with upper back pain:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Morning stiffness
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder pain
  • Redness, warmth or swelling of the back
  • Stress
  • Insomnia

If you or someone you know is experiencing the following symptoms with back pain, immediate medical attention is required.

  • Abdominal pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Indigestion
  • Chest pain
  • Jaw pain
  • Sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting

Upper Chronic Back Pain Between Shoulder Blades Could Mean Something Serious

The upper back involves important elements of the spine. The spine is made of vertebrae that control our head movements and support our upper body structure. Upper back pain can begin in the neck and back area and radiate into the shoulders, arms, and hands.

If you suffer from upper back pain between the shoulder blades, the first course of action should be to review your activities. Ask yourself if you have done any heavy lifting or sports activities that could have irritated muscles or tendons. If you recently began a new exercise routine, it could simply be that you stretched muscles that haven’t been used in a long time.

Unfortunately, sometimes upper back pain between the shoulder blades is more serious than a muscle strain. If someone has a gallbladder or bile problem, it could cause upper back pain between the shoulder blades. The gallbladder is a small organ in the upper right area of the abdomen that helps with the digestion of food. If it becomes diseased, it can cause back pain. The pain is normally a stabbing sensation in the upper back between the shoulder blades. Also, when a gallstone blocks a bile duct it can cause sharp pain in the upper back that radiates into the right shoulder.

Burning pain between shoulder blades and upper back can occur when someone has esophageal cancer or lung cancer. Liver cancer has also been known to cause radiated pain in the back.

Herniated discs can cause extreme pain in the back and are often accompanied by pain radiating down the arms, as well as some numbness.

Treatments and Home Remedies for Shoulder Blade Pain Relief

Just as there are various reasons for upper back pain, there are multiple ways to go about treating the problem. In some cases, the pain can seem unbearable and you may want to turn to painkillers, but people soon learn that painkillers simply mask the problem instead of dealing with it.

You can get surprising results with shoulder blade pain relief at home. For instance, there are upper back pain relief stretches you can do each morning when you get up and each night before you head to bed. Your doctor can guide you on what stretches are best for your upper back pain condition. Again, depending on your situation, upper back pain relief at home may come after attending organized exercise classes prescribed by your doctor. It can be helpful to have someone guiding you through all the upper back pain relief exercises and being with others who are suffering the same pain.

In many instances applying hot and cold treatments go a long way in relieving pain. A hot bath can be a nice way to heat the upper back. You can also try placing a hot water bottle on the back to ease the pain. Cold packs are also good, but wrap the pack with a wet cloth before applying so you don’t cause a cold burn. Some people find that alternating between hot and cold is helpful.

Changing your sleep position reduces the strain on your back and can sometimes help ease the level of burning pain between shoulder blades you’re experiencing. A doctor or physiotherapist can give you tips on how to position yourself and use pillows for the best results.

If you are able to establish that your back pain is due to a muscle strain, as is the case with many sports injuries, physiotherapy could be a good option. Physiotherapists will guide patients through exercises and stretches to the point where patients are able to work on their own at home to reduce pain.

Alternative Remedies for Shoulder and Upper Back Pain Relief

Developed in China, acupuncture is a practice that involves pricking the skin or tissues with tiny needles to relieve pain. Those who practice acupuncture believe that when our energy force, or “Chi” as they call it, is blocked, it causes pain. Acupuncture has the ability to free up the “Chi” channels by inserting the needles into specific pressure points, thus releasing the pain. It is believed that the needles release neurochemicals that help in the healing process.

Massage therapy is another alternative remedy that works for a lot of upper back pain sufferers. A SpineUniverse survey in 2008 showed that back pain patients were “very satisfied” with massage as a treatment option. A massage therapist uses both his/her hands and special tools to rub the painful muscles in the back and neck. The rubbing increases blood circulation and brings more oxygen to the muscles. It can also get rid of acids that build-up in muscle and cause pain. It’s important to seek out a certified massage therapist if you decide to go this route.

Shoulder Blade Pain Exercises and Stretches (for When You Have Burning Pain Between Shoulder Blades)

People with mild to moderate pain may want to start upper back pain exercises and stretches in the comfort of their own home. There is a long list of poses/movements that you can try. You should take it slow – try one or two to start. You can always add more upper back pain exercises and stretches if you can tolerate movement. Below you will find a few examples of stretches and exercises you could potentially do at home.

  • Pectorals stretch – Stand in an open doorway with both hands above your head on the doorframe or wall. Slowly lean forward until you feel a stretch in the front of your shoulders. Hold 15 seconds. Repeat two to three times.
  • Scapular squeeze – While sitting or standing with your arms by your sides, squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold for five seconds. Do two sets of 15.
  • Thoracic stretch – Sit on the floor with your legs out straight in front of you. Hold your mid-thighs with your hands and curl your head and neck towards your belly button. Hold for a count of 10 to 15 seconds. Repeat three times.
  • Lying knee twist – Lie on your back with legs extended out. Bend your right knee and cross it over the left side of your body. Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
  • Yoga cat/cow – Kneel on all fours with your hands beneath your shoulders and your knees below your hips. Exhale and gently arch your spine. Inhale and tighten your core muscles as you are rounding your back like a cat. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times.

There are many other upper back pain exercises and stretches that can bring you relief. The key is to find the combination that will bring you gradual relief. Recovery takes time. You can’t expect to find upper back pain relief overnight. In most cases, it didn’t take just a day to create the back pain, so it stands to reason that it will take some patience, time and work to reduce the pain and get back to a happier place.

Tori highly recommends these tips for anyone who feels they’re not being heard by their doctor:

  1. Be your own advocate
  2. Get a second, third, fourth, however many opinions you need so you feel comfortable.
  3. Ask for copies of all your reports, tests, and scans, so you can read them yourself. Bring them to new providers, so they can see what has already been done.
  4. Go to your next appointment with questions ready.
  5. Above all, trust yourself; you know what is normal and what is not for your body.

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