Because IBC is rare and symptoms can be subtle, Dr. Sledge says they are often misinterpreted. The symptoms of IBC are similar to a breast tissue infection called mastitis. Some doctors, not recognizing IBC, will prescribe antibiotics. Because IBC requires immediate treatment, Dr. Sledge says patients diagnosed with mastitis whose symptoms do not go away after seven to 10 days should consult their doctor for a biopsy immediately.
In Mason's case, her symptoms included sharp, shooting pains and breast enlargement. "I assumed it was premenopausal," she says. At the urging of her husband, Mason went to her doctor. One clean mammogram later, Mason was sent home with directions to eliminate caffeine and use a cold compress. "That's what you want to hear and you don't want to be a bother, so I went home," she says. "At that point in my life, I was a very quiet, compliant person."
Her symptoms gradually worsened, and six months later Mason was back in her doctor's office. She was referred to a surgeon who performed a biopsy. The next day, Mason was told she had inflammatory breast cancer.
According to Dr. Sledge, the standard treatment for inflammatory breast cancer is chemotherapy, followed by surgery, followed by radiation therapy. Mason was asked to begin chemotherapy immediately and took the weekend to inform her family and her boss. Mason cut her waist-length hair, began treatment and became determined to defy the odds—the survival rate for someone diagnosed with IBC is significantly lower than that of a typical breast cancer patient.
"The very sad thing is, whereas breast cancer prognosis has steadily improved over the years, IBC prognosis has not," Dr. Sledge says. It's not uncommon for the cancer to return after treatment. "In the long term, probably no more than a fourth to a third of IBC patients are long-term survivors," he says.