Ginny Mason was 41 years old when her surgeon sat down next to her, took her hand ("Never a good sign," she says) and asked if she had ever heard of inflammatory breast cancer. As a nurse, Mason had more knowledge about breast cancer than the average person—but like most people, she didn't know there was more than one kind. Her mammogram was clean, she had no lumps in her breasts and there was no history of breast cancer in her family.
So how could her doctor be telling her that she may only have between 12 and 18 months to live? "On a scale of one to 10, this isn't the breast cancer you want," he told her. "This one's not very common, but it's deadly."
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is rare, which is one of the reasons so few have heard of it. "It accounts for no more than 5 percent of all breast cancers," says Dr. George W. Sledge Jr., a medical oncologist and professor of medicine. "It's called inflammatory because that's how it looks. The woman who has inflammatory breast cancer has breast cancer that's red and inflamed, with an angry look to the breast cancer," he says.
Unlike typical breast cancer, IBC usually cannot be detected by a mammogram or ultrasound. While a lump may sometimes accompany IBC, the cancer usually grows in nests or sheets rather than as a confined, solid tumor.
Check yourself regularly for these symptoms:
- Skin over the breast becomes pink, red or darkened with rash-like symptoms
- Skin over breast thickens, sometimes with a fine dimpling with texture similar to the skin of an orange (called peau d'orange)
- Breast is noticeably warm to the touch
- Breast pain or tenderness (which can range from a constant ache to stabbing pains)
- Swelling, usually sudden, sometimes a cup size in a few days
- Nipple retraction or discharge
- Change in color and texture of the areola