A mum's tragic battle against inflammatory breast cancer

"Vicki smiled all the time. She smiled until one hour before she passed away."
"Vicki smiled all the time. She smiled until one hour before she passed away." Photo: Supplied

Nursing her three-month-old baby boy Charley, Vicki knew something wasn't quite right. Her breast, which had changed colour to an angry shade of red, was suddenly rock hard with a searing pain that wouldn't subside.

A visit to the doctor resulted in a diagnosis of mastitis, and Vicki was told she should continue to breastfeed her baby. But still the symptoms persisted.

Three-and-a-half months and two more diagnoses of mastitis later, Vicki made the decision to see a different doctor. She was immediately hospitalised and subjected to a barrage of tests. And that was when the crushing news was delivered: at just 37 years of age, with beautiful two-year-old and six-month-old sons, Sunny and Charley, Vicki was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer.

Vicki and her sons during her treatment.
Vicki and her sons during her treatment. Photo: Supplied

"It is often confused with mastitis," says Professor Ian Olver, CEO of Pink Ribbon, who explains that inflammatory breast cancer vastly differs from other strains. "Instead of having a lump or something you can see on a mammogram, you get this red, mean and oedema swelling and redness of the breast. It progresses fairly rapidly."

Tragically, the quick timeline rang true for Vicki. Diagnosed on January 10, 2013, she became embroiled in the battle of her short lifetime. Only nine months on, after the bravest fight, Vicki succumbed to inflammatory breast cancer on October 18, 2013.

In the face of this heartbreaking loss, Vicki's mum, Helen, and her youngest sister, Stacey, have vowed to create a legacy she would be proud of.

"We want to raise awareness of inflammatory breast cancer, because as soon as you mention it the response is 'what's that?'" Helen says.

When looking at the statistics, it's not surprising that the general public – and even some people in the medical fraternity – aren't aware of the cancer.

"Each year, around 0.1 per cent of the 15,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer will be diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer," says Dr Vivienne Milch, medical officer with Cancer Australia.

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Approximately 48 out of every 100 women survive at least five years after the diagnosis. Because of her love for her children, Vicki tried her hardest to beat the insidious cancer inside her; right until her last moments, her mum says, she never stopped battling to survive.

"Her passing was strong," Helen recounts, her voice laced with a mixture of pain and pride. "And they say when they've got babies, they fight."

Stacey's voice still brims with emotion when she speaks about her older sister. "Everybody loved Vicki, and she was beautiful. I idolised her and wanted to be like her," she says.

Vicki and her boys, Sunny and Charley.
Vicki and her boys, Sunny and Charley. Photo: Supplied

Helen says she will always remember her daughter's smile: "She smiled all the time. She smiled until one hour before she passed away."

"She never cried a lot but sometimes she would look at me and the tears would just be rolling down her cheeks. She knew in her heart she was gravely ill. I'd put my arm around her and I'd say 'if I could put it into me I would'.

"When they said it was in her spine she just cried and said 'but I've got babies!' 

"That was eight days before she passed away."

The key, as with all cancers, is not only early detection, but self awareness, says Dr Milch.

"Knowing what's normal for you is important for women of all ages, even if you're having regular mammograms," Dr Milch states. "You don't need to be an expert or use a special technique to check your breasts. You just need to take the time to familiarise yourself with your body so you can notice any changes that may be unusual for you."

Signs of inflammatory breast cancer can include:

• the breast looking red or inflamed, or a rash, as if it's infected or bruised

• the breast becoming swollen and enlarged; it may feel heavy or uncomfortable

• the breast feeling warm and tender

• the skin on the breast appearing dimpled or pitted, like an orange peel.

Some women may also have a lump in their breast or armpit, pain in the breast or nipple, discharge from the nipple, or a nipple that turns inwards (inverted nipple).

"Most of these changes aren't due to breast cancer, but it's important to see your doctor if you notice anything new or unusual for you," Dr Milch says.

In the rare case of a diagnosis, Professor Olver recommends phoning the Cancer Council helpline on 13 11 20. "Because it is rare, some who are diagnosed quickly may have never heard of it before and may want more information," he says.

For Helen and Stacey, who now live with the loss of their beloved daughter and sister, they are desperate to ensure other children don't have to grow up without their mummy, like little Sunny and Charley must do.

"We want young mums, any mums, to know that if you get mastitis and it's not clearing up within a week, don't mess around – go for an ultrasound," Helen says adamantly.

They don't want you to be alarmed, just to be aware. For the sake of their Vicki and how hard she fought, they hope you honour her memory with this one wish.

For more information on inflammatory breast cancer, visit canceraustralia.gov.au/inflammatorybreastcancer.

If you or your family have concerns about breast cancer, call Cancer Council on 13 11 20. To get involved in Pink Ribbon Day visit pinkribbon.com.au.

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