When you saw your gynecologist for the first time as a young woman, you were taught how to do a breast self-exam and instructed to do it each month to check for symptoms of breast cancer. Self-detection is often the way that breast cancer is found, particularly in women younger than middle age, since routine mammograms don't take place until after the 40th (or, in some cases, 45th) birthday. What you might not know is that inflammatory breast cancer, which can tend to occur in younger women, is usually not characterized by the same lumps or bumps that typical breast cancer is known for. Here are the facts you need about this deadly disease.
What Is Inflammatory Breast Cancer?
Inflammatory breast cancer occurs when cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the breast. Instead of causing a hard lump or mass, it makes the breast (or part of the breast) feel swollen, tender, and heavy. It might feel as though you have mastitis (a breast infection) or that your breast was injured. Also, many women experience a change in the skin of their affected breast; instead of it being smooth, it might have the texture of an orange peel.
The reason it's so important to know about inflammatory breast cancer is that this type of cancer spreads extremely quickly. While typical breast cancer might grow very slowly over the course of a year or more, inflammatory breast cancer can progress to stage III or IV (which means it's infiltrating local or faraway tissues and organs of the body as well as the breast) in a matter of weeks or months. It's also commonly diagnosed in younger women, particularly younger African American women, unlike typical breast cancer, which is usually diagnosed after the age of 40.
How Is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Detected?
Most of the time, this type of cancer is detected by the woman herself, who notices the signs of inflammation. Since the symptoms are not subtle in many cases, the pain and swelling of a breast will often encourage a woman to seek medical care. If it's put off, however, it's easy for the cancer to spread to the point that it is less treatable.
Mammogram, including 3-D mammogram, does not usually detect the cancer itself, but it can detect the thickening of the skin that usually occurs with the disease. If you notice something different about the way your breast feels, your doctor might recommend a clinical exam, then a mammogram, even if you are under the age of 40 or have no family history of the disease.
The most reliable way to diagnose the disease, however, is by punch biopsy. During this procedure, the skin of the breast is stretched and an instrument is used to remove a small section of the skin through all of the layers. You will receive local anesthesia to make it less painful, and you will have one or more stitches to close the wound left behind. This tissue is biopsied to check for inflammatory breast cancer cells.
How Is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Treated?
Inflammatory breast cancer shares some of the same treatments as typical breast cancer. In general, the treatment plan includes chemotherapy, surgery, and/or radiation. One difference between the treatment plans is that most types of inflammatory breast cancer don't respond to hormone treatments that reduce the amount of estrogen in the body. Your oncologist will run tests to see if this is true of your particular case.
If the cancer has spread to other areas of the body, then they will need to be treated, as well. This can entail more surgeries or different types of chemotherapy and radiation. Because there is a lot of current research going into this disease, your doctor might recommend that you enroll in a clinical trial, as well.
Although the prognosis for those affected by inflammatory breast cancer is often not as good as for those with typical breast cancer, it's important to remember that quick detection and prompt treatment can make a big difference in your personal prognosis. If you notice any symptoms of inflammation in your breast, see your doctor right away or speak with a representative from an establishment like EVDI Medical Imaging.