I was sitting in my home office furtively scratching a rash on my swollen left breast when an email arrived from an old friend. The subject line screamed, URGENT WARNING! OPEN IMMEDIATELY! Annoyed because it was just another pass on message, I pointed my mouse to the delete button then hesitated. On the outside chance she had included a personal message, I opened it.
Staring from the monitor was the photo of a womans breasts, frighteningly similar to the reflection in my bathroom mirror a few hours ago. One breast was swollen with an angry red crescent around the edge of a dimpled nipple just like mine. The title on the article read Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC).
I gasped so loudly, my feline office assistant, CiSi, bolted off my desk and hid behind the sofa. Hands shaking, I dialed my internists office. I need to be seen today, I told the receptionist. I think I have Inflammatory Breast Cancer. She fired a few questions at me, then put me on hold. After an interminable length of time, she came back on the line. Dr. C. says to come right in, she said. Shell see you on her lunch hour.
Then I really panicked.
According to the American Cancer Society, IBC represents only five percent of new cases in the United States, but the survival rate is 25 to 50 percent compared to 87 percent for all breast cancers combined. Statistically, it strikes more African Americans than Caucasians and women with a higher body mass. I fit none of the profiles. But it was scary stuff. Without the junk email, I might have continued to self-treat with anti-itch cream and delayed seeing a doctor.
Dr. Cs office was uncharacteristically empty, and the receptionist, munching on her sandwich, told me to go right back. Dr. C. tapped on the door before I could fully disrobe and asked me stand while she studied both breasts carefully, then motioned for me to lie down for an exam. I winced as she probed and prodded. Im not sure what this is, but I want you to go right over to the breast center, she said. Well set it up so they take you right away.I remained there for the rest of the afternoon, suffered through two mammograms, an ultrasound, then was told to come back the next day for a biopsy. No one would confirm or deny my fears. As soon as I got home, I Googled IBC. What I learned provided no comfort: IBC is a rare cancer that develops rapidly and spreads from its origin to nearby tissue, generally the lymph nodes. By the time the cancer is discovered, its considered locally advanced and classified either State IIIB or Stage IV. Treatment includes chemotherapy, followed by a mastectomy and radiation. I checked off many of the signs: A rapid change in the appearance of my left breast;Visible swelling;A warm bright red bruise;Tenderness, pain and itching;Absence of lumps.Needless-to-say, I spent a sleepless night.After an agonizing wait, I learned that my biopsy was negative. It was only a nasty infection. But I worry about other women who have no inkling that a lump is not the only sign of trouble. An odd looking dimpled nipple, red breast splotches, swelling on one side or an itch could be a deadly form of cancer. IBC is an extremely aggressive form of breast cancer that wont wait. If you have the symptoms I had, make an immediate appointment with the doctor. I hope it is just a rash, but, please, get it checked. About the author: Mickey Goodman is an award-winning freelance writer and blogger.Have you had a medical false alarm? Share your story below.