How Georgia woman's rash turned into breast cancer diagnosis

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Rebecca Hockaday has never been one to sweat the small stuff.

So, back in 2012, when the then 35-year old noticed a new spot on her breast, she didn't think much of it.

"It literally looked a like colored freckle," Hockaday remembers. "There was just one, and then two, and I had a bunch more that showed up all at once. And that's when I thought, 'Okay, this is time.'"

The Watkinsville mother of two boys went to a dermatologist, who biopsied her the skin on her breast and quickly sent Hockaday to Emory's Winship Cancer Institute.  

That's where she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer or IBC.

"It's one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer that we know of," says Dr. Mylin Torres, Director of the Glenn Family Breast Center at Winship Cancer Institute.

IBC is rare, making up only about 1% of all breast cancers.  

But, it's fast-developing, fast-moving, and hard to diagnose, Torres says. 

Typically, a woman with breast cancer may feel a lump in her breast, or a radiologist may spot a mass on her mammogram.

Yet inflammatory breast cancer is more likely to appear as an angry rash on the breast, or an infection.

"It will present as redness in the skin that is usually more than a third of the breast, and heat over that (area of the) breast," Dr. Torres says.  "The skin of the breast can look like an orange peel, we call that peau d'orange."

The skin changes tend to appear rapidly, and this type of cancer can spread quickly.

So, Dr. Torres says, if you develop a red rash, and haven't been recently breastfeeding or had a cut or trauma to your breast, see your doctor within a day or two.

"Let them know,  'I've heard of this entity called inflammatory breast cancer. I know I'm not the typical age when breast cancer strikes, but could this be it," she says.

Rebecca Hockaday waited about six months before she saw a doctor about the freckled spots on her breast.

The delay may have given her cancer time to spread.

"With it being in my skin, in my lymphatics, in my lymph nodes, it was very aggressive," she says. 

Hockaday worried about her boys, then 4 and 8, and her husband, wondering how they would deal with treatment.

"For me, it was, just, "Okay, tell me what I have to do. Let's do this. Whatever I need to do," she says. 

Hockaday began intense chemotherapy, then underwent surgery to remove both breasts.

But the cancer persisted.

"I didn't understand why. I went through chemo, why is it not all gone? I had a mastectomy, why is it not all gone," she says. 

Now, she was facing a double-dose of radiation, twice-a-day treatments, 44 in all.

"So, I went in the morning and then six hours later, I had my second treatment, every day," she says.

The aggressive treatment regimen paid off.

Nine months after her diagnosis, Hockaday's scans revealed no evidence of cancer.

"I sat in my car and cried with my husband," she remembers. 

Five years later, Rebecca Hockaday is moving on with her life,  cancer-free, and grateful for every day.

"Life is too short, way too short," she says. "I learned how to enjoy my family, I learned how to enjoy life itself. Seize every opportunity."

The American Cancer Society says inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) can cause a number of signs and symptoms.  They tend to develop rapidly, and at the same time.

Common warning signs include: 

  • Thickening or swelling of the skin of the breast
  • Redness involving more than one-third of the breast
  • Hardening of the breast
  • Pitting or ridging of the skin of the breast that may look like an orange peel
  • An inverted nipple
  • Swelling or heaviness in one breast
  • Redness that feels warm to the touch
  • Tender, itchy, painful breast tissue

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