Not all breast cancers begin with a lump.
Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare, but very aggressive cancer that causes less typical symptoms. Symptoms people are more likely to write off as something else.
It also tends to occur more often in people under the age of 40, who may be less worried about breast cancer. All those factors can result in a dangerous or even deadly delay.
When Lisa Overholser noticed some changes to the skin on her breast during a self-exam, she didn’t think much of it.
“These were not bothersome symptoms to me, so it was really easy to ignore them. But, looking back now, the redness was there, the dimpling, like the orange peel, that was all there,” Overholser said.
Those symptoms are actually signs of inflammatory breast cancer, a quick-growing cancer that blocks lymph nodes in the skin covering the breast. By the time they appear on the skin, inflammatory breast cancer has already typically reached stage three, which means it has spread beyond the original tumor location.
“The disease tends to grow rapidly compared to other types of cancer and even with treatment it tends to recur or come back more often than other types of cancer,” Dr. Ko Un Park with OSU Comprehensive Cancer Center said.
Knowing the symptoms and calling your doctor as soon as possible can be lifesaving. A new national survey finds that while nearly 80% of women know a lump is a sign of breast cancer, less than 45% recognize signs like redness, thickening of the skin or one breast feeling warmer or heavier than the other as possible cancer symptoms. Instead, many mistake those signs as an infection.
“Even in the medical community, physicians and providers are not used to thinking about red breast as a sign associated with inflammatory breast cancer, because it is such a rare disease,” Ko Un Park said.
Overholser said she hopes others can recognize their symptoms sooner than she did.
“If I could help somebody else make a better choice than I did, absolutely. I’ll shout it from the rooftops. Don’t ignore it. Days make a difference with this particular cancer,” Overholser said.
The bottom line is any changes in the shape, feel or symmetry of the breasts should be checked out by a doctor right away. Inflammatory breast cancer can progress rapidly, often in a matter of just weeks.
Because inflammatory breast cancer often does not cause a lump, it may not show up on a mammogram. Because it can develop so quickly it can easily occur between screenings, which is why it’s so critical for women to spot any changes and get them checked out without delay.
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