That’s what Tamara Benjamin thought when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 52. She had no lump — only a rash on her left breast, which multiple doctors told her was just an infection.
But after the rash spread and her breast swelled, she scheduled an appointment with a breast specialist near her home in March 2020. This was the fourth provider she had seen. He took a sample of tissue from Tamara’s breast and brought her back to his office to deliver terrible news: Tamara had breast cancer. It wasn’t a typical form of the disease, he said. Tamara had a rare, aggressive type called inflammatory breast cancer. She was stunned and scared.
“I am a former athlete who eats healthy, works out every day, and leads a very healthy lifestyle,” says Tamara, an accountant from Queens who is married with two adult children. “I thought there must be a mistake.”
Inflammatory breast cancer makes up just 1% to 5% of all breast cancers. Patients usually don’t have a lump. This form of the disease more often starts with a swollen, engorged breast, caused by tiny clumps of cancer cells blocking lymphatic fluid from properly draining. Patients may also have pain, itchiness on their breast, or discharge from their nipples. Sometimes, as in Tamara’s case, a rash develops.
‘MSK Gave Me Hope’
An elite runner, Tamara channeled her athlete mentality and braced for treatment. But the chemotherapy at a local hospital was grueling. She had severe nausea and didn’t feel like she was getting good care.
“The treatment they had me on was worse than the disease,” Tamara says. “I would try to keep active, but I would leave every appointment feeling just horrible.”
When she decided to come to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, she was able to schedule her appointment virtually, because it was at the peak of the pandemic. Medical oncologist Jackie Bromberg told Tamara that there was no time to waste.
“I told her, ‘You cannot delay treatment,’ ” says Dr. Bromberg. “This is an aggressive disease, and you need to stay on track. Thankfully, at MSK, we have expertise in this form of breast cancer and coordinate all treatment seamlessly so there is no delay in care.”
Tamara says Dr. Bromberg was the first doctor who reassured her that she was going to be OK. “MSK gave me hope,” she says, calling Dr. Bromberg her “savior and rescuer.”
Time Is of the Essence
Healthcare providers don’t often think of inflammatory breast cancer when they see a case like Tamara’s, says Dr. Bromberg, which gives the cancer time to spread. Tamara had no time to waste. She started chemotherapy again. But even though it was the same type as before, her experience was much better. Tamara’s team at MSK was able to control her side effects, provide nutrition counseling, and be at her bedside for physical and emotional support.
“Nurses held my hand during chemo,” she says. “And Dr. Bromberg called me between appointments to check in.”
She had treatment on Fridays and was back to her normal routine by Sundays.
Tamara says she learned it was not enough to find experts who knew how to treat inflammatory breast cancer. It was about finding the right experts — those who could provide support and help her stay motivated.
“Dr. Bromberg and her team helped turn my mindset around and assured me that I was going to be a survivor,” Tamara says. She began walking more and then running. It gave her the confidence to start a consistent exercise routine again. She joined a gym and hired a personal trainer.
After finishing chemotherapy, Tamara persevered through surgery to remove as much remaining cancer as possible, followed by five weeks of radiation therapy. In August 2020, Tamara got good news: no evidence of disease. So happy and grateful, she visited the clinic on days she didn’t have treatment to bring healthy homemade juices to the people who had taken such good care of her.
Tamara is still closely monitored by Dr. Bromberg and takes medication to keep the cancer at bay.
Putting Breast Cancer Behind Her
This spring, Tamara will undergo reconstructive breast surgery. For now, she is focusing more on doing the things she loves: helping others, playing tennis, walking her dogs, and spending time with her family and friends. She’s also looking forward to her son’s upcoming wedding.
Tamara says she’s grateful she changed providers, even during the pandemic. She calls coming to MSK “the best decision I made.” At MSK, the ability to ease her side effects and improve her quality of life was key. Tamara felt truly cared for by people who knew how to get her on a path back to wellness. “I credit it all to Dr. Bromberg and the incredible team at MSK,” she says.