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What is inflammatory breast cancer? Lesser-known signs to look for beyond lumps

Most adults know lumps are a common breast cancer symptom, but there are other signs to look for that are lesser known and may point to other forms of the disease.

“Knowing what both common and uncommon symptoms are, will allow women and men to notify their doctors if there’s a change in their breast and to find cancer earlier,” Dr. Ashley Pariser, a medical oncologist with Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told CBS News.

A recent survey from the university’s cancer center found most people weren’t aware of other breast cancer symptoms, including:

A retracted, inverted or downward-pointing nippleBreast puckeringLoss of feelingPitting or thickening of the skinNipple discharge

These symptoms, which may be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer, can often be mistaken for an infection, Pariser says.

“If it’s not getting better, it’s really important to look at an alternative reasons because inflammatory may be one of the reasons,” she says.

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Inflammatory breast cancer accounts for only about 1% to 5% of breast cancer cases, according to the American Cancer Society, but it’s aggressive and fast growing, making it important to know the warning signs.

“(Inflammatory breast cancer) doesn’t look like a typical breast cancer,” the organization’s website says. “It often does not cause a breast lump, and it might not show up on a mammogram. This makes it harder to diagnose.”

It says this form of the disease tends to occur more often in younger women, under 40 years of age. It’s also more common in Black women compared to White women, and in women who are overweight or obese.

For Lisa Overholser, things began with pain and swelling in her neck and shoulder in May 2020.

“My initial symptoms were some skin changes in my breast,” she told CBS News. “It had gotten kind of just thickened and dimpled, but what really drove me to the doctor was pain in my left arm.”

She thought she had a pinched nerve. She was diagnosed instead with stage four inflammatory breast cancer.

“I quit breathing,” she said. “I had worked in physical therapy. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got this radiating pain,’ never connecting it to the skin changes in my breast.”

Inflammatory breast cancer can be diagnosed after a biopsy or imaging tests such as a mammogram, breast ultrasound or MRI scan, according to the American Cancer Society.

Overholser’s treatment included intensive chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and a two-drug oral treatment to try to keep her disease stable.

Now she has no active cancer activity and is urging others to talk to their doctor if they notice changes in their body.

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