Thursday, April 29, 2010

Inflammatory breast cancer - the beginning

I'm a fit, 45 year old woman, I don't eat meat (except fish), I have never smoked, I maintain a healthy weight, run about 4 times a week, drink only a few glasses of wine a week, have a wonderful partner and two children who bring me joy and love the occasional (ahem) piece of dark chocolate (hey, that's supposed to be good for you too - at least I probably won't die of a heart attack).

What I didn't do enough of is consider that, although I am healthy, I am not invincible and if I had something unusual symptoms, I should see a physician. In my own defense, I must say that I had never been told about Inflammatory breast cancer, and my purpose for writing this is to inform as many people as I can about this type of cancer.

Here are 6 signs of breast cancer you may not know:

1. Breasts that feel warm to touch:

A breast that always feel warm, sometimes hot to the touch is a symptom of inflammatory breast cancer, a dangerous and rare type od the disease.

2. Flat or inverted nipple:
A nipple that is flat or inverted is also a symptom of breast cancer. This does not include having an inverted nipple since birth.

3. A breast that is often itchy:

If you have itchy breasts or nipples, talk to your doctor. These are both symptoms of breast cancer.

4. The skin around the breast is dimpled or looks like an orange peel:

Breast and surrounding skin can take on a dimpled appearance, looking like an orange peel. Many women are too embarassed to show a doctor, thinking it is cellulite or from being overweight. This is not the case.

5. Swollen or breast that does not change with menstrual cycle or size increase:

It's normal for a woman's breast to become swollen and tender during a normal menstrual cycle, but when it's constant, it needs to be evaluated by a doctor. Women also need to be aware of a sudden breast size increase.

6. Breast that is red or blotchy:

A breast that is red or blotchy, even having a rash-like appearance should be evaluated by a doctor. It is a symptom of inflammatory breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer is a type of cancer that is often undected by a mammogram and self breast exam.

I have fibrocystic breasts which increase in size every month but are nearly always painful. I was told that this is normal, and perhaps it is, but there are all sorts and levels of normal. I have Inflammatory Breast Cancer. I should have known more about what to look for, and, through my own ignorance, I nearly didn't get to the doctor in time. I'm writing this blog to give more women some information that you may not have received from your doctors, who tend to dismiss fibrocystic breasts (which make it difficult to catch breast cancer) and breast changes as not that important. This information may send some of you to get tested earlier - and even if you don't want to find cancer, no one does, early diagnosis will save your life.

I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in February 2010, after a huge number of tests, and am Stage iiib with a large cancer in the breast and in at least one lymph node. This is an unusual type of cancer that is often thought to be mastitis or edema. Your breast gets very sore and can be quite red and bloated. In November, 2009, three weeks after returning from visiting my father with my husband and two children, I had news that my father died. I returned again to Canada for my father's funeral. After very little sleep and a 28 hour flight, I thought it more than probable that my swollen and sore breast was from the ordeal. I did nothing about it for the week I was in Canada and then turned around 6 days later and flew back- another 28 hours in the air. By the time I arrived in Adelaide, I was absolutely exhausted, but, although sore, my breast seemed to be getting better, and the swollen lymph node seemed smaller as well. I soon got back to running and all was back to almost normal. I worked every day in an arts business partnership, happy to be back creating, and trying to catch up on all I had missed. Very soon it was school holiday time and Christmas and, well, life just got in the way. We all had a wonderful Christmas break. It was relaxing and I was getting better.

After Christmas, the breast was nearly back to the right size, but the nipple was still wrong, the skin was thicker than it had been and it was a bit withdrawn; my lymph node was still swollen. I was pretty sure I had an infection that I wasn't able to fight off. I questioned the need for antibiotics with myself and also, in the corner of my mind, I thought I'd better get to a doctor just in case it might be more serious.

I finally went to the doctor after the children went back to school in January. She was concerned - very concerned, and got me in for screening asap. I was nervous now, and had to wait for the weekend until I could have the screening. I had had an ultrasound on my breasts five years before as I had concerns about the thickening of my breast tissue; especially with my right breast. The ultrasound technician didn't think there was anything for me to be concerned about, so I dismissed the test once I had the all clear. But the fibrocystic nature of my breasts means that diagnosis of anything ominous is very difficult.

Testing this time meant a mammogram to start with.  I knew this was completely useless - my breast tissue is so thick that unless something is on the surface, mammograms don't work at all.  Sure enough, nothing could be found.  Next was the ultrasound.  The technician was concerned by the outward appearance of my nipple area, but mostly the lymph node. A doctor came in to talk to me and told me not to worry, most people don't die from breast cancer anymore.

Needless to say, I was pretty upset.  My GP got onto a surgeon and I went to see him right away, followed soon after by an MRI.  To make a long story short, after a needle biopsy and four core biopsies, cancer was found. I had a cat scan and bone scan which, thankfully, showed no cancer beyond the breast and lymph node area. I have had four chemotherapy treatments to shrink the tumor and will have a double mastectomy next week (my choice to remove the 'healthy'breast, but the right one has to go along with the lymph nodes).

If you read this post, please discuss inflammatory breast cancer with your friends and make them aware.