“Grey’s Anatomy” tearjerker sheds light on rare cancer

“Grey’s Anatomy” tearjerker sheds light on rare cancer

If you’re a fan of “Grey’s Anatomy,” you’ve no doubt been following the sad storyline about Dr. Maggie Pierce’s mom’s battle with inflammatory breast cancer.

But what exactly is inflammatory breast cancer?

Many may not realize it, but “breast cancer” is a broad term that encompasses several different categories. These cancers can be classified into various subtypes based on the type of cell where the cancer originates. Most breast cancers arise from the ducts through which milk is ejected (ductal carcinoma) or from structures called “lobules,” which prepare the milk (lobular carcinoma).

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer that can arise either from the ducts or the lobules. It blocks off lymphatic vessels, causing significant skin changes when present. It is called “inflammatory” because the breast often looks swollen and red. Often the involved area is raised above the level of the surrounding skin.

According to the National Cancer Institute, IBC accounts for approximately 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancer cases in the U.S. and has a significantly lower survival rate than non-inflammatory breast cancers.

Women affected by IBC are typically younger than those with other types of breast cancer. It is more common in African-American women and also occurs more frequently in obese women than those with normal body weight. Like any other type of breast cancer, men can also develop IBC.

Symptoms of IBC

Most breast cancers are found when a breast lump is detected either by mammography or by breast self-examination. However, IBC usually affects the skin, although some patients simultaneously have an underlying breast lump.

Because it develops so quickly and is often mistaken for a skin infection, it’s important to recognize the symptoms specific to IBC. They include:

  • Rapid change in the appearance of one breast
  • Thickness, heaviness or visible enlargement of one breast
  • Discoloration (red, purple, pink appearance) of breast
  • Unusual warmth of the affected breast
  • Dimpling or ridges on the skin of the affected breast
  • Enlarged lymph nodes under the arm, above or below the collarbone
  • Flattening or turning inward of the nipple
  • Swollen or crusted skin on the nipple
  • Change in color of the skin around the nipple (areola)
  • Itching
  • Tenderness, pain or aching

Treatment options

Since this is an aggressive form of breast cancer, the treatment also tends to be very intense.

IBC is first treated with systemic chemotherapy to help shrink the tumor. This is usually followed by mastectomy — a complete removal of the involved breast. Surgery is often followed up with radiation therapy. These patients may also need to be treated with drugs that either block or reduce the female hormones. This “multimodal” approach can result in better responses and longer survival.

“Several advancements are being made in the management of this rare but aggressive breast cancer,” says Dr. Bhanu Vakkalanka, medical oncologist on staff at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Ill.  “Identification of certain proteins related to the cancer cells would enable us to target our treatments more precisely and achieve better outcomes with lesser side effects.”

People with IBC are encouraged to enroll in clinical trials that are testing new treatments. If you have IBC and are interested in participating in one of the trials, talk to your doctor about your options.

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care sites, also including freelance or intern writers.