Two years ago, Jennifer Cordts noticed a red spot on her left breast that looked like a sunburn. “I went and got a mammogram, and it came back normal,” she explained in an interview with Dallas-Fort Worth news station WFAA. “I was told, crazy enough, that my bra was too small.”
But the spot on her chest (pictured below) didn’t go away—so Cordts, a mother of two, Googled her symptom. “IBC, or inflammatory breast cancer, was the first thing that popped up. Everybody was asleep, and I was terrified.”
A biopsy confirmed her worst fear: stage 4 IBC. “I remember [the doctor] saying inflammatory breast cancer, and all I could think about was what I had Googled,” she recalled through tears. “Because what I had Googled said that everybody dies.”
“Inflammatory breast cancer is a less common, more aggressive form of breast cancer,” Marleen Meyers, MD, a medical oncologist at NYU’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, explained to Health via email.
Women with IBC rarely develop a lump. “In IBC, cancer cells infiltrate the skin and lymph vessels of the breast,” says Dr. Meyers (who has not treated Cordts). The result is usually a warm and swollen breast, and sometimes peau d’orange—or skin that appears pitted and thick like an orange peel. Rashes or tiny skin nodules are also common symptoms, Dr. Meyers adds.
Other signs of this rare form of the disease (it makes up 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses in the U.S.) include redness or skin that looks bruised, pain or tenderness, an inverted nipple, and swollen lymph nodes under the arm or near the collarbone.
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Because IBC is aggressive, treatment typically includes a combination of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. Cordts is undergoing radiation therapy to slow the progression of her disease. Every three months, she has a PET scan to see if the cancer has spread. When she was diagnosed, her doctors gave her a prognosis of three to five years.
Cordts hopes her story will serve as a warning for other women: “I really want this to educate. I really want someone to go ‘Oh my gosh I have redness in my breast. I better … push past the mammogram and ask for some more tests.'”
Dr. Meyers agrees that it’s always best to err on the side of caution when you notice something unusual on your body: “Most rashes are due to allergic reactions to medication or irritation, but any rash that doesn’t resolve within a few days or is associated with other symptoms such as shortness of breath or fever should be evaluated,” she says. “If you see something, say something.”