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M. D. Anderson Patient Paints Gulf Coast Cities Pink to Raise Awareness of Inflammatory Breast Cancer

M. D. Anderson News Release 10/19/09

Brazoria County residents will see even more pink in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, thanks to Cathy Williams, a cancer survivor and patient at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. Williams and a group of volunteers are painting storefront windows with pink ribbons to raise awareness of and funds for inflammatory breast cancer.

Inflammatory breast cancer, also known as IBC, is a rare and aggressive type of breast cancer that represents 1% to 5% of all breast cancer cases in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. Unlike breast cancer, which forms a lump and is detected by a mammogram, IBC does not form a lump, grows rapidly and is often missed by a mammogram. Because IBC affects the breast’s appearance, it is often mistaken for a rash or skin infection. Symptoms can include breast pain, inflammation and redness.

“Few are familiar with inflammatory breast cancer,” said Williams, a resident of Rosharon. “These ribbons initiate discussions about this cancer. Every business owner who donates money to this cause receives details about IBC to share with customers, family members and friends.”

Williams and volunteers began painting pink ribbons on business windows in exchange for donations to breast cancer research in 2006. Despite her own diagnosis of IBC in April 2008, she has continued her efforts but now focuses solely on highlighting this rare cancer. Williams and her team decorate about 100 windows each October. Since 2006, they have raised a total of $8,500.

“It began as a project to honor my mother, who died from breast cancer at 43, and to raise funds and increase awareness of the disease in general,” Williams said. “Since my diagnosis in 2008, however, my goal has been to educate the community about IBC and donate all contributions to the Morgan Welch Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Program and Clinic at M. D. Anderson.”

Williams developed symptoms of IBC just days before her diagnosis. She scheduled an appointment at M. D. Anderson as soon as she noticed changes to her left breast.

“First, my breast grew larger and I felt a stabbing sensation; inflammation appeared soon after,” Williams said. “When the pain occurred, I knew something was wrong and contacted M. D. Anderson. It was similar to an earring puncturing my breast. One night the pain was so intense that I checked my bed for sharp objects. Of course, nothing was there. But when I examined my breast the next morning, I found a large red mark.”

When Williams saw redness, she suspected IBC. After her appointment at M. D. Anderson, doctors referred Williams to the center’s Morgan Welch Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Program and Clinic. Following diagnostic tests, Massimo Cristofanilli, M.D., associate professor in M. D. Anderson’s Department of Breast Medical Oncology and director of the specialized program, diagnosed Williams with stage IIIB IBC.

“While we’ve made great advancements in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, we need to remember there is another type of breast cancer that is relatively unknown,” Cristofanilli said. “During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we must also dedicate our efforts to educating women and others in the medical community about IBC.”

For several weeks, Cristofanilli used a combination of chemotherapy drugs Paraplatin®, Taxotere® and Herceptin® to treat Williams. She then continued on Herceptin alone for one year. Later, she had a mastectomy to remove her left breast, followed by radiation treatment. Williams’ cancer responded to treatment; she is cancer free.

Williams now has follow-up appointments with Cristofanilli and her radiation oncologist every three to six months. This October, she hopes to raise $10,000 for M. D. Anderson’s IBC research and looks forward to raising awareness of this cancer by painting windows in Lake Jackson, Alvin, Angleton and West Columbia. She will expand the project to Pearland and Friendswood this year as well.

“It’s important that those in the general and medical community learn about inflammatory breast cancer,” Williams said. “I will continue telling my story and hope that those who learn about this aggressive cancer will tell others.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, IBC is a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. Its causes are unknown, but those with a family history of breast cancer are at a higher risk for developing IBC. This cancer blocks lymph vessels in the skin of the breast and may cause the breast to swell or the skin to appear red, purple, bruised or ridged, like the skin of an orange. Other symptoms for IBC are burning, aching or tenderness, an increase in breast size, and/or an inverted nipple.


© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center