Your mom has been diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer. When I heard those three words – inflammatory breast cancer – it was almost as if her doctors were speaking a foreign language. Of course, I was mindful of breast cancer, thanks to effective public awareness campaigns, education from doctors and regular screenings. But, it was that one word – inflammatory – that made all the difference. On Jan. 15, 2014, my family quickly learned about this aggressive cancer that would claim my sweet mom’s life in just a few short months.
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is rare, accounting for only 1-5 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses annually. It differs from other types of breast cancer in its symptoms, outlook and treatment. Often, a lump is not present.
When my mom’s cancer was diagnosed, it was already Stage IV. Cancer had spread to her lungs, bones, liver and lymph nodes. During a 24-hour period, our discussions went from “mom will need a mastectomy; possibly a double mastectomy,” to “how long does she have?”
My mom was humble, and in many ways, a private woman. Raised on a farm in Pomeroy, Iowa, she carried her early life lessons and experiences with her until the day she died. Her upbringing was exemplified in her strength, hard-working nature and appreciation of life’s simple pleasures.
Mom was the type of person who wore her emotions on her sleeve, and it’s something I cherished about her. You always knew what mom was thinking. Throughout life, she taught me it was OK to cry – saying that now and then we all just need a good cry. She taught me generosity and gratitude and the importance of being thankful every day. Along with my dad, she gave me the greatest gift of all – a strong faith.
While mom’s diagnosis was shocking – especially since there is no history of breast cancer in our family – there were some early signs, just not the ones Mom expected to have with breast cancer. Symptoms of IBC include breast swelling, purple or red color of the skin, and pitting or thickening of the skin of the breast so that it may look and feel like an orange peel. Due to this cancer’s ability to spread rapidly – sometimes in a matter of just days – by the time the symptoms are at this level, the cancer is often at an advanced stage.
That’s what is often most troubling about cancer – silent symptoms that don’t have “cancer” written on them. Silence while the cancer is quietly and aggressively wreaking havoc. Heart disease has long been referred to as the “silent killer.” However, thanks to the incredible work of the American Heart Association and people across the country – many of them our relatives, friends, neighbors or co-workers – the silence of heart disease is being broken. Survivors have given a powerful voice to the warning signs of heart disease.
We can do the same with cancer. Collectively, we can break the silence by listening to the signs – no matter how small they may be – and speaking up by telling our doctors about family history or unusual symptoms. We need to take advantage of the gifts of modern medicine that come in the form of mammograms, MRIs, colonoscopies and more.
Mom was 75 when she died, which is far too young. I’ll always remember that when faced with her terminal cancer diagnosis, she had a quiet strength about her – a different strength that I had not seen before. I think it was her way of giving her family one last gift – to be courageous, brave and strong as we struggled with the devastating reality. In her final days, I remember those attributes most.
In honor of my mom, I vowed that I would bring a voice to IBC. When discussions about parents come up, I share that I lost my mom to cancer four years ago. It would be easy to stop there, but I often share information about IBC and its rapid progression. Nine times out of 10, people (both men and women) are not aware of this type of cancer. Asking people to learn more about this cancer is how we break IBC’s deadly silence.
If detected early, we know that people have a fighting chance to beat cancer. Based on my new family history and increased risk, I have a 3D mammogram every June and a breast MRI every January. I also had genetic testing to see if there were any clinically significant mutations in the numerous cancer genes that were tested. Receiving a negative test result gave me a little peace of mind, yet it doesn’t change the fact that I must be vigilant in routine screenings. My husband had his first colonoscopy this week. We were surprised when the doctor informed us he removed four pre-cancerous polyps, which if they had not been detected could silently turn into cancer. We are grateful for these screening opportunities.
Cancer is a horrible, ugly disease that has likely touched every single person reading this article. I hope that together we can be a strong voice for cancer – breaking its silence – by learning early warning signs and faithfully doing routine screenings.
My mom was an amazing cook, and she instilled in me a love of cooking. Many years ago, we found this recipe in a Taste of Home magazine. It’s been a family favorite ever since. When Mom and Dad came to our house for dinner, they would frequently request this meal. The pork is mouth-watering and tender, and the glaze is bursting with flavor. I serve it with mashed potatoes and sugar snap peas. I often double the glaze recipe so that we can pour it over the slices of roast and potatoes!