Education is a wonderful thing, but 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. Of course, some women died because they didn’t check with their doctors, but most of the time that bug bite cleared up in a few days.
Now many women have seen a TV news story about IBC in which two patients described their initial symptoms as looking like bug bites, and they write or call in panic afraid they have cancer. I talked to one frightened woman on a toll-free IBC line where I volunteer from time to time. As we talked, it turned out that she had just returned from a camping trip and had mosquito bites on her breast.
Others have Googled a description of their rash and gotten hits for breast cancer along with a world of panic. 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?
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.
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 towards 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.
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.
Think about changes in your routine. A change in laundry detergent or body lotion might be causing an allergic reaction. A new exercise or a new style bra might be causing chafing.
So what could that red place 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.
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. 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.
Based on my friend’s experience, I thought that the rash on the underside of my breast a few years ago must be a fungal infection, but the cream I used didn’t help at all. 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.
Another fungal problem that can affect the breasts, especially in nursing mothers, is thrush. My daughter recently 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.
The time I had shingles, I was really glad I didn’t wait to see the doctor. I was going to watch the stinging, red blistery bumps just below my breast, but while I was getting some routine lab work, I asked if the doctor could take a quick look. It turns out that the anti-viral for shingles works best if administered within 48 hours, and I was there just in time.
Most breast skin problems aren’t cancer, but they are uncomfortable, and usually don’t go away without the correct treatment. So you are not a whiner if you ask to see the doctor to get the right diagnosis.
The 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, catching and treating it early will help you get better sooner.
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)© organization focused on research for IBC. She is a list monitor for an online support group at www.ibcsupport.org. Phyllis attends conferences such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD® Institute. She tweets at @mrsphjohnson.