Understanding Inflammatory Breast Cancer

by Phyllis Johnson Patient Advocate

Education is a wonderful thing, but sometimes, having too much knowledge can be frightening. Back in the days when no one had heard of inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), a red spot on the breast that looked like a bug bite didn’t worry anyone. While some women went undiagnosed with breast cancer because of this, most of the time, that bug bite really was just a bug bite and cleared up in a few days.

But when a 2006 TV news story about IBC aired in which two patients described their initial symptoms as looking like bug bites, women panicked, afraid they had cancer. For example, I talked to one frightened woman on a toll-free phone line at the IBC Research Foundation where I volunteer. As we talked, we realized she had just returned from a camping trip and the concerning symptoms on her breast were just mosquito bites. Others have Googled a description of their rash and gotten hits for breast cancer along with a world of fear.

The breasts are subject to all kinds of rashes, most of which are not dangerous. So how can you tell what you have and when to call the doctor?

Things to consider

  1. First, ask yourself: How would I react if this were on my arm or leg instead of my breast? If it looks and itches exactly like the mosquito bites on your arm, it probably is a mosquito bite.

  2. Second, watch the progress of the problem. If it looks like a bruise, it probably is a bruise. However, if it’s not changing colors and moving toward healing in a few days, it’s time to check with the doctor. If that mosquito bite doesn’t get better, maybe it is something more serious.

  3. Another clue to look for is whether the problem affects both breasts. Cancer usually affects just one side, and even in those rare cases when women have cancer in both breasts, the symptoms of breast cancer don’t show up exactly the same on both sides or at the same pace.

  4. Think about changes in your routine. A change in laundry detergent or body lotion might be causing an allergic reaction. A new exercise or bra might be causing chafing.

Common types of breast rashes

So what could that redness be? I’m not a doctor, so I’m sure there are plenty of possible causes I’ve never heard of, but between me and my friends, I’ve become something of a connoisseur of rashes.

Fungal infection: A few months after my diagnosis with IBC, a friend called me asking about my rash. She had just developed a red rash, and my description of my symptoms sounded all too familiar to her. Her rash sounded different than mine, but I urged her to see a doctor, just in case.

It turned out she had a fungal infection, and the right kind of cream cleared it right up. The underside of the breast is a warm, dark, damp place where these fungi like to grow. Think athlete’s foot, jock itch, vaginal yeast infections — similar organisms, different place on the body.

Heat rash: Based on my friend’s experience, I thought a rash on the underside of my breast a few years ago must be a fungal infection, but the antifungal cream I used didn’t help at all. When I went to the doctor, I found out it wasn’t fungal. Nope, the doc said — I had heat rash and needed diaper rash cream! Lesson learned: Don’t try to self-diagnose a rash that lasts longer than a few days. Check with the doctor.

Thrush: Another fungal problem that can affect the breasts, especially in nursing mothers, is thrush. My daughter became something of a thrush expert when she had shooting pains and red, sore nipples while nursing her baby. Mother and baby can pass thrush back and forth, so both baby and mom need treatment.

Shingles: The time I had shingles, I was really glad I didn’t wait to see the doctor. While I was getting some routine lab work done, I asked if the doctor could take a quick look at the stinging, red, blistery bumps just below my breast. It turns out that the antiviral for shingles works best if administered within 48 hours, and I was there just in time.

Eczema: That scaly rash on your nipple may be eczema. You can get eczema almost anywhere on your body where there is skin. A scaly rash also may signal Paget’s disease of the breast, a type of cancer, but this is much more rare.

Most breast skin problems aren’t cancer, but they are uncomfortable, and usually don’t go away without the correct treatment. So don’t feel like a whiner if you ask to see the doctor to get the right diagnosis.

In my case, a light pink flush all over my breast turned out to be an early sign of IBC, and the dark purplish-red circle that showed up a few weeks later looked like an infection, but it was cancer. Whatever the problem, minor or major, catching and treating it early will help you get better sooner.

Phyllis Johnson
Meet Our Writer
Phyllis Johnson

Phyllis Johnson is an inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) survivor diagnosed in 1998. She has written about cancer for HealthCentral since 2007. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the oldest 501(3)(c) organization focused on research for IBC. Phyllis attends conferences such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD® Institute. She tweets at @mrsphjohnson.