The Breast Cancer You Aren’t Looking For

80-90% of the time, Virgin to Life is about me being a big goofball and telling you amusing/funny stories about the things I’ve learned in life.  As can be expected, not all of the things we learn in life are amusing or funny, yet I feel these lessons still need to be shared.  With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I would like to share a story of a type of breast cancer I didn’t know about until mid-2009.  Unless you’ve been affected by it, I’m betting you probably haven’t heard about it either; I cannot recall learning about it in any class on women’s health, or hearing it mentioned in my annual Ob-Gyn visits.  Please take a few minutes to read my story below, and share it with the women in your life.  I originally posted this on Facebook last year.

In June 2009, my best friend Debbie was experiencing the joys of being a first-time mom.  After years of trying, Debbie was finally blessed with Adam James, who may just be the happiest, cutest little boy you’ll ever see – not that I’m biased or anything.  Seriously, if you ever see AJ, within five minutes, you’ll become a Vaudeville performer determined to entertain him and keep that sunshine on his face.  I’m not even a “kid” person, yet when I last visited Debbie, I found myself making funny faces and ready to do a song and dance for him.

Like all moms, Debbie’s body changed during and after pregnancy.  After bringing a little person into this world, you expect that your body is going to make a few adjustments.  Debbie noticed a particular change to her body while she was breastfeeding – her skin became tough, almost like the texture of an orange peel.  She assumed this was due to her breastfeeding and wasn’t overly concerned.  A few months later, Debbie did her monthly breast self-examination, and found a lump.  She went to her doctor, and after a number of tests, she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer.

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is an extremely aggressive form of cancer that can occur in both men and women.   It moves fast and spreads quickly, often going into lymph nodes and into other organs.  The outlook is often poor because of its ability to go undetected for so long.  The five year survival rate for IBC is 40% compared with 87% for all breast cancers.  Due to its aggressive nature, treatment has to be equally aggressive.  Following her diagnosis, Debbie bravely went through several rounds of chemo, had a double mastectomy, and finally went through several rounds of radiation.  Thankfully, even though doctors still found cancer cells in her removed breast tissue, as of today Debbie has no cancer cells in her body.

Debbie, 34 at time of diagnosis, is in the .0013% of the population diagnosed with IBC. There is no occurrence of breast cancer in her family and, unlike most who are diagnosed with IBC, Debbie had a lump in her breast. If this is your first time hearing about IBC, I’m going to repeat that – with IBC, you do not typically find a lump.  The frightening discovery of a lump in this case is likely what saved my best friend’s life.  So, let’s break this down – my friend with no family history of breast cancer, is not only diagnosed with breast cancer, she’s younger than most people who have breast cancer, she gets a type of breast cancer which makes up 1-6% of all breast cancer cases in the US, and of that 1-6%, she’s in a small percentage who had a lump.

Here is my question to you – have you ever played the lottery or entered a raffle? Why is it, when there’s a 1 in 100,000 chance of winning a million dollars, we’ll gladly throw down a few bucks, but when we hear of an illness that affects 1 in 100,000, we say, “well, I’m not that one.”  Guess what? Any one of us can be that one. Until they can find a cure, the best way you can arm yourself against this disease is through education.  I encourage you to read the symptoms below and share your newfound knowledge with others.   Keep in mind that with IBC, the symptoms vary in occurrence and severity.  Per Wikipedia, They may include:

-       Pain in breast

-       Skin changes on the breast

-       Reddened area with texture resembling the peel of an orange

-       Sudden swelling of the breast

-       Itching of the breast

-       Nipple retraction or discharge

-       Swelling of lymph nodes under the arm or in the neck

-       Unusual warmth of the affected breast

-       Breast is harder or firmer

Also per Wikipedia, other symptoms may rarely include:

-       Swelling of the arm

-       Breast decreases instead of increasing

In most IBC cases there is NOT a well-defined tumor, however when one is present, it will grow rapidly.  The only reliable method of diagnosis is biopsy.  IBC can go undetected in a mammography or ultrasound.

The bottom line is this: YOU know your body better than anyone. If something doesn’t seem right to you, go to your doctor. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.

When I showed this to Debbie to get her “ok” to post this, she wanted to point out that yes, treatment does suck, however it could be a lot worse.  In her journey with this disease, she’s learned that aggressive treatment and a positive attitude goes a long, long way.