Know the signs, symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer

Know the signs, symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer

Each month women are encouraged to perform a breast self-exam so they get to know their body and detect if changes occur. Self-exams can be an important way to find breast cancer early, increasing the likelihood it can be treated successfully. While it’s more common to feel for a lump in your breast, what does it mean if you notice a change in size or even the skin’s texture?

Changes in breast skin texture or redness and swelling can be symptoms of a rare, yet aggressive, form of breast cancer known as inflammatory breast cancer.

Kristie Johnson was diagnosed at age 50 with Stage 3 Triple Negative and Inflammatory Breast Cancer after she noticed her right breast was swollen and the skin toward the top of her breast felt hard. Tests revealed the hard area of her breast was actually a mass about the size of a quarter within the skin tissue.

“At first, I was pretty overwhelmed with the diagnosis,” Johnson said. “Honestly, I didn’t know a lot about breast cancer, and originally thought it was hereditary.”

Inflammatory breast cancer accounts for only 1 to 5% of all breast cancers, according to the American Cancer Society, yet it tends to be more aggressive. Inflammatory breast cancer can spread more quickly than other types of breast cancer. The signs and symptoms, which usually develop within 3-6 months, include:

  • Swelling of the breast skin
  • Redness
  • Pitting or thickening of the breast skin, similar to an orange peel
  • A retracted or invested nipple
  • One breast looking larger than the other due to swelling
  • One breast feeling warmer or heavier than the other
  • A breast that may feel tender or painful to the touch, or itch
  • Swelling of the lymph nodes under the arms or near collarbone

Upon meeting with her clinical team at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill., Johnson endured eight rounds of chemotherapy to stop the growth of the tumor. Then she had a mastectomy of her right breast with removal of lymph nodes, followed by 30 treatments of radiation.

Dr. Ameer Gomberawalla, a breast surgeon at Advocate Christ Medical Center who was a part of Johnson’s care team, said inflammatory breast cancer can be difficult to treat.

“Inflammatory breast cancers are aggressive, which means treatment is aggressive as well,” Dr. Gomberawalla said. “Often the diagnosis is delayed, as the patient or their initial treatment team may mistake the skin changes for an infection. Fortunately for Kristie, she did the right thing, which was to seek care from a team experienced with inflammatory breast cancer. In addition, her tumor did not spread outside of the breast and lymph node area.”

Dr. Gomberawalla said Johnson’s positive attitude throughout her entire journey was an inspiration to her care team.

“Throughout her treatment, Kristie maintained a positive attitude and outlook on life,” he said. “In fact, she came through the process and started a new business, which is such an incredible story. You can only achieve that with the right mindset, and Kristie set an example for all of us to follow.”

Johnson said she has been extremely impressed with the care that she received from her entire care team.

“I had a really positive attitude throughout the entire process,” she said. “I think that’s what helped me. God is amazing. My friends were very supportive. My doctors and nurses were really helpful. I’m grateful to my team at Christ.”

Johnson works as a bartender and is starting her own commercial cleaning business. Throughout the past year and a half, she not only beat breast cancer, but also COVID-19. She now refers to herself as a “super survivor.”

“It’s been a journey, but I came out of it a super survivor,” she said. “I’m very grateful to be on the other side of this journey and in a healthier place.”

As a breast cancer survivor, Kristie Johnson was honored at the Chicago Bears Real Bears Fans Wear Pink game on Oct. 3, 2021.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and now more than ever is an important time to talk and learn about prevention. Take a breast health assessment or schedule a mammogram.

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About the Author

Johnna Kelly
Johnna Kelly

Johnna Kelly, healthe news contributor, is a manager of public affairs and marketing at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. She is a former newspaper reporter and spent nearly 10 years as a public relations professional working for state and county government. During her time as a communications staffer for the Illinois General Assembly, she was integral in drafting and passing legislation creating Andrea's Law, the nation's first murderer registry. In her spare time, she volunteers at a local homeless shelter, enjoys traveling, photography and watching the Chicago Bulls.