Pongee Kennedy: One Woman’s Journey with a Rare Form of Breast Cancer

Patient Perspectives

When it comes to breast cancer, women are taught to look for a lump as a warning sign for the illness. But there is a form of the disease that resembles a skin infection called inflammatory breast cancer.

Pongee Kennedy knew something was wrong. Her breast didn't look or feel normal, but her primary care physician told the 44-year-old that it was nothing to worry about. It was. Kennedy had inflammatory breast cancer, or IBC, a rare and very serious form of the disease.

"It's actually a very virulent, aggressive form of breast cancer that presents not always with an actual mass in the breast but with changes in the breast that look like a bad infection," said Anne Wallace, M.D., FACS. Dr. Wallace is director of the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center Breast Care Unit. She took over Kennedy's care after she was diagnosed with the illness.

"When Dr. Wallace examined me, the first thing she said was, 'Oh blipity blank. You should have been in here three months ago,' and of course that didn't make me feel good because I knew three months ago that something was wrong. But my primary care physician perhaps didn't know what it looked like or what it was," Kennedy said.

That's not uncommon. Dr. Wallace says many cases of IBC are misdiagnosed as infections -- especially in younger women who are nursing. She says that although IBC is often called “the silent breast cancer,” there are symptoms women should look for.

They include:

  • A breast that looks inflamed
  • Skin that resembles the color and texture of an orange peel
  • Thicker-looking skin
  • Redness

"The bottom line is two weeks of a red, inflamed breast. If it's not gone or way improved, then that person should be evaluated for a biopsy," Wallace said.

Kennedy responded well to chemotherapy, and after a mastectomy is now cancer free. But her experience has taught her a valuable lesson about speaking up for her health. She hopes other women will do the same if they suspect something is wrong.

"Check it out. Check it out thoroughly, and don't stand for someone saying 'I think it's maybe just a….' Get a second opinion and keep going back. Keep going back because we know our bodies, and we should know our bodies," Kennedy said.