Inflammatory breast cancer survivor finds hope at MD Anderson
As a first-time mother, 35-year-old Stephanie Cobb expected to feel exhausted after the birth of her daughter, Eloise, in early 2019. But six months later, she noticed other concerning symptoms. She experienced trouble breastfeeding, developed a leathery texture and bruise-like rash on her left breast, and felt a shooting, needle-like pain in the same breast.
Stephanie was initially diagnosed with mastitis. After seeing multiple health care professionals, completing two courses of antibiotics and undergoing surgery to drain the fluid from what was thought to be an abscess in her breast, her pain was getting worse.
An inflammatory breast cancer diagnosis
Stephanie researched her symptoms online, looking for anything that could help explain or ease the intense pain. She realized many of her symptoms aligned with the classic signs of inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer in which cancer cells block lymph vessels in the skin and soft tissue, causing lymph fluid to quickly build up and swell in the breast. But when she brought up the possibility of IBC, she says her concerns were dismissed due to the rarity of the disease.
Then, during her post-operative appointment in September 2019, results from biopsies taken during the surgery confirmed her worst fear. Stephanie was diagnosed with stage IIIB ER positive, HER2 positive inflammatory breast cancer.
“The room kind of stopped. If anybody had listened to me, my circumstances would have been completely different. We already would have been ahead of this,” Stephanie says.
The first oncologist she visited told her there was only one treatment protocol available, and that given the aggressive nature of the disease, she needed to start as soon as possible.
“They told me I could get a second opinion somewhere else, but it was going to be the same,” she says.
Her husband, Fortune, continued researching their options. He discovered the Morgan Welch Inflammatory Breast Cancer Clinic at MD Anderson. He told Stephanie that MD Anderson had one of the only specialized clinics in the country where all they focus on is inflammatory breast cancer — and they were in Houston, not far from their home. Stephanie and Fortune decided to visit MD Anderson for a second opinion.
Confidence in MD Anderson’s inflammatory breast cancer expertise
Almost instantly, Stephanie could tell MD Anderson was different — in a positive way.
“From the moment I walked in those doors, I knew that I was in the best hands possible for this disease,” she says.
During her initial visit, Stephanie was seen by a team of several doctors who focused on different aspects of her cancer and treatment. She met with medical oncologist Vicente Valero, M.D., radiation oncologist Wendy Woodward, M.D., Ph.D., and surgical oncologist Anthony Lucci, M.D. Together, they presented not one, but three different treatment protocols for her to consider.
“The other places offered one path and one path only. But at MD Anderson, it was very different,” she says. “The multi-team came in armed with knowledge. They knew what they were talking about. It was a lot of information, but they didn't rush me. They never made me feel like I was just a number or just another patient. They answered all my questions.”
After weighing her options, Stephanie enrolled in a Phase II clinical trial. She was initially hesitant about pursuing a clinical trial, but Dr. Valero put her at ease and addressed her concerns. He even drew pictures on the paper covering the exam table to help explain how the treatment would work.
“He told me regardless of if I did the trial, I would receive the best care possible,” she says. “I asked him if this was his daughter sitting here having the same conversation, what would he have her do. And he said, ‘I can’t tell anyone what to do. But I would want her to do the trial because we can always do better. We can always improve.’”
After that, Stephanie felt confident enrolling in the clinical trial.
Persevering despite a secondary breast cancer diagnosis
As part of the clinical trial, Stephanie received the standard treatment for IBC, but the drugs were administered in a different order and also included a targeted therapy component for her specific genetic subtype of cancer. After several months of chemotherapy and targeted therapy, initial scans showed the cancer was shrinking. But then in early 2020, she learned a separate cancer — stage Ib invasive ductal carcinoma — had started developing in her opposite breast.
Stephanie was determined to complete treatment. “My daughter, Eloise, motivated me to do whatever was necessary to watch her grow up,” she says. “My motto was: ‘The only way out is through. There’s no way around it.’ I tell people, you just have to show up and do the things. It doesn’t have to be pretty. You just have to make do.”
Stephanie underwent a double mastectomy and removal of more than a dozen lymph nodes, performed by Dr. Lucci. After persevering through physical therapy so she could raise her arm above her head, she started radiation therapy under the care of Dr. Woodward. She then completed another course of chemotherapy in 2021 and was put on an estrogen blocker, which she’ll continue taking for the rest of her life.
Four years after her diagnosis, Stephanie has completed treatment and is celebrating three years of being cancer-free.
“Because of MD Anderson, I’m here today living a healthy life with my family,” she says. “MD Anderson saved my life.”
Boot Walk provides a way to give back
In 2019, Stephanie learned about MD Anderson’s Boot Walk to End Cancer® — a 1.2-mile walk hosted by MD Anderson to raise funds for cancer research and patient programs. She was unable to attend that year but joined the following year.
“Given that I personally benefited from participating in a clinical trial and from the prior research that developed the treatments I received, I decided to become a patient advocate for the IBC program at MD Anderson and to fundraise for the IBC Wranglers Boot Walk team,” she says. “I wanted to help in some way, and this was something I could do.”
Stephanie designed and sold T-shirts and shared her story on social media, asking friends and family to donate or join her for the virtual walk. Although typically a private person, Stephanie says she realized the importance of spreading awareness about IBC.
“The best thing we can do is arm ourselves with this knowledge and share it,” she says. “I want to be a resource for somebody because I was very alone in the beginning. I don't want that for somebody else.”
Stephanie participated in the Boot Walk again in 2021, and in 2022, she served as co-captain for the IBC Wranglers team. Since her first Boot Walk in 2020, she has helped raise $20,000 for cancer research and patient programs at MD Anderson.
“It means a lot to us to have this annual event we can do together to unite as a team and represent a cancer that's considered so rare and aggressive,” she says. “The Boot Walk gives us a way to feel connected with our community. It feels like a family.”
For Stephanie, the Boot Walk is more than just a walk. It’s a community that she, Fortune and Eloise can lean on and celebrate with after a tough four years.
“It’s something we look forward to every year. Last year was our first in-person one. Eloise asked me who all these people were and how I knew them. I told her I didn’t know all these people, but they were here to support others with cancer, like me,” she says. “It reminds you that you’re not alone.”