Survivor of rare form of breast cancer on mission to help others

October 13, 2017 06:09 PM

Every woman knows to check for breast lumps, but there's another type of breast cancer with very different symptoms. It’s called inflammatory breast cancer. Because so few women are diagnosed, it’s usually detected at a later stage.

Inflammatory breast cancer is rare, aggressive and very deadly. Scant awareness about this form of breast cancer is part of the problem.

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That's why a local woman, diagnosed three years ago, is on a personal mission to get the word out to spare others.

"It was just a little pink. It wasn’t anything extraordinary. Nothing that raised any huge red flags," explained Maria Mitchell.

That was January 2014 and the start of a life-threatening ordeal for  Mitchell. The pink rash on her breast became itchy and the skin thickened, but after four months and close to half a dozen doctors, none of them could tell her what was wrong. Mammograms, ultrasounds and biopsies were all inconclusive.

She researched her symptoms and learned she could have inflammatory breast cancer. Finally, a surgeon did one more test.

"On May 12 about 5:00 in the afternoon I received a call from the surgeon," recalled Mitchell. It was cancer.

WEB EXTRA: Extended interview with Maria Mitchell

Mitchell would endure 12 rounds of chemo, a double mastectomy, removal of 18 lymph nodes, 33 rounds of radiation and treatment with Herceptin and tamoxifen. To say it was grueling for this mother of two is an understatement.

"They don't know what to look for. We are told to look for a lump and if you don't feel that lump, everything's okay. However, we are told to look for changes. They just don't tell you what changes to look for," she explained.

Changes include breast swelling, redness and thickening of breast skin. The skin may have ridges or appear pitted, a rapid increase in breast size, sensations of heaviness, burning, or tenderness in the breast or a nipple that is inverted.

"Inflammatory breast cancer is not diagnosed until at least stage 3. When you are having to go several months to get the diagnosis many women are diagnosed at stage 4 and it's terminal," she pointed out.

Mitchell’s cancer was stage 3. Her latest exam showed no sign of disease, but she knows recurrence is high. So she's dedicated to educating women about this insidious killer.

"I just want other people to not have to go through what I went through," she noted.

Keep an eye out for Mitchell at "Making Strides Against Breast Cancer" this Sunday, October 15, at Albany's Washington Park. She'll be there handing out pamphlets about inflammatory breast cancer, which often strikes younger women

Jason Gough and I are the emcees for the event. The walk, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, steps off at noon.


Benita Zahn

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