COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The common rule with breast cancer is that people over the age of 40 should receive a breast examination from their doctor every year. But, not all breast cancers can be detected by mammogram or ultrasound.
“One in eight women are going to be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives,” said Dr. Sachin Jhawar, Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology & Director of Breast Radiation Oncology. “Most breast cancers start as a mass within the breast. Oftentimes they are detected with screening mammogram and or ultrasound. Inflammatory breast cancer is different. Oftentimes there’s no mass associated.”
Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare and aggressive form. It doesn’t show up as a lump in the breast in most cases. By the time it’s detected, Dr. Jhawar said it’s already considered Stage 3, and oftentimes Stage 4, meaning it’s already spreading.
This form of breast cancer is rare. The numbers aren’t exact, but Jhawar said, “People quote between .5% and 5% of all cases are inflammatory breast cancer. So where there may be 200 to 300 thousand new diagnoses of invasive breast cancer a year, only a few thousand of those will be inflammatory breast cancer.”
Jhawar said early diagnosis is of the utmost importance because of how rapidly this form of breast cancer spreads.
“These patients tend to present earlier in life, in their 30’s and 40’s and again they would not have those traditional signs that we would catch on a mammogram where we would find a really small mass early on in its progression. The main thing we see is erythema or redness of the breast and swelling of the breast. It has to include over one third of the breast and it’s usually a very rapid onset,” Jhawar said.
Another difficulty with inflammatory breast cancer is that it often gets misdiagnosed because the symptoms are similar to other ailments.
“It has these different symptoms often confused with an infection like mastitis or cellulitis,” Jhawar said.
Lisa Overholser of St. Paris, Ohio is one of those patients facing inflammatory breast cancer. She’s been battling for three years.
“The mass had gotten up into the lymph nodes of my neck. It was creating pressure on the nerves, and I had severe pain down my left arm. I thought I had a pinched nerve in my neck,” Overholser said.
Overholser said she went through a very difficult course of chemotherapy.
“And once that was complete, and in fact we had to stop it a little early because the cancer wasn’t responding quite as well as we had hoped. We went directly to surgery, and they performed a radical mastectomy followed by about seven and a half weeks of radiation,” Overholser said.
That was more than two years ago.
“I was told three years ago I have Stage 4 cancer, that’s aggressive. And my chances of beating it weren’t really high. But I’m here today feeling better, looking better, doing better than I did the three years before I had cancer,” Overholser said.
Overholser has defied the odds. She spends time with family, and tries to enjoy life as much as she can.
“It’s also not a life ending diagnosis. It’s life changing, and if you kind of put it in its place it can be a change for the better. It can be a positive change. Life becomes so much more precious and so much more joyful, because we realize we’ve never really been promised too many days anyway,” Overholser said.
One of the big things she said has helped her get to this point in her treatment, advocating for herself.
“If your doctor does diagnose it as that and you run your course of antibiotics and there’s really not an improvement, you need to be persistent and be your own advocate. We just need to be our own best advocate and if something doesn’t feel right to you, don’t let somebody tell you it’s ok if you know in your heart it’s not,” Overholser said.
Another big help in her fight, a great support system of family, friends, and doctors.
“You’re not in the fight by yourself. Devote your energy to fighting, to truly fighting for your life. This disease wants to kill you. And I just kind of said ‘not on my time you don’t,’” Overholser said.
While Jhawar said it’s a scary thing to face for anyone diagnosed with cancer, there is encouraging work being done.
“When you get a diagnosis of any cancer, but specifically as devastating as something like inflammatory breast cancer, it can initially feel really hopeless,” Jhawar said. “The good news is we continue to get better and better every day and the prognosis truly is improving over time. There’s always hope.”