'Your rash is sunburn': Mother told not to worry by doctor six times had to have double mastectomy

Melanie O'Neill was told six times not to worry but she knew something was wrong

Melanie O'Neill was told six times not to worry but she knew something was wrong

On six separate consultations, doctors told Melanie O’Neill that the angry red patch across the top of her chest was ‘nothing to worry about’. It was sunburn, said one, and indeed it did look like this. Another doctor claimed it was down to a badly-fitting bra.

But Melanie knew something was wrong. The 37-year-old says: ‘I first noticed the patch in January last year – it spread over the top of my chest, over my breasts but not on them. It felt irritated and almost hard – a bit like the skin goes when you’re stung by something.

‘What was happening to me didn’t feel like a run-of-the-mill rash or allergy. You know your own body and I was convinced there was more to it.’

Melanie, who runs a hairdressing salon with her husband Carl, 38, was right to be concerned. She was suffering from inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), an aggressive disease that affects as many as 1,100 women out of the 45,000 diagnosed with breast cancer every year in Britain.

For five months the mother of two daughters, Lois, six, and Darcey, four, battled to convince her GPs she was ill. When even a specialist gave her the all-clear she admits: ‘I just felt so powerless. No one was really listening to me yet instinctively I knew I needed help.’

The symptoms of IBC, which can appear rapidly, include itchy, swollen or painful breasts. In some cases, skin on the chest can also appear pitted like the surface of an orange. Although Melanie had checked her breasts regularly for lumps, IBC usually forms in layers, not as a solid lump like most breast cancers, and therefore didn’t show up on ultrasound tests.

The redness is caused by cancer cells blocking the tiny channels that run through the breast. These channels are part of the lymphatic system, which helps the body fight off infections.

Melanie says: ‘Women are told to check their breasts and report anything abnormal. That’s exactly what I did and was told time and time again to go home. But we should be looking for any changes, not just lumps. GPs often think of breast cancer as a solid tumour but you don’t have to have a lump to have breast cancer.’

Women with similar symptoms should be given and MRI scan and an ultrasound

Women with similar symptoms should be given and MRI scan and an ultrasound

Many women with IBC are diagnosed late either because they ignore the symptoms or because doctors incorrectly diagnose the cancer as an infection, according to breast cancer surgeon Professor Kefah Mokbel of the London Breast Cancer Institute and St George’s Hospital in London.

He says: ‘Many doctors will wrongly diagnose mastitis, a common condition in new mothers where the breast becomes infected. I had a case where the patient had IBC for a year and the doctor had been treating her with antibiotics. My advice to women is they should ask to be referred to a specialist if their symptoms have not improved after two weeks.’

Women with these kinds of symptoms should be given both an ultrasound and an MRI scan – and if these show up negative, they should carry out a biopsy where cells are removed from the breast with a needle for testing. ‘Women who are pre-menopausal, Afro-Caribbean women and those with a body mass index above 30 are most at risk. Early diagnosis is vital. Look out for changes such as abnormal swelling. Most women with IBC won’t have a lump,’ says Prof Mokbel.

Weeks after being given the all-clear by the first specialist she saw, Melanie, who lives in Warrington, Cheshire, developed a dull ache in her left arm. Another GP suggested she take a painkiller. Melanie researched her symptoms on the internet, and IBC seemed to fit. Husband Carl urged her to go to A&E but again she was told she was imagining a problem. Crucially, the nurse failed to examine Melanie – when that would have revealed her breast was abnormal.

Melanie with daughters Los, left, and Darcey

Melanie with daughters Los, left, and Darcey

Only last May when she demanded to see another breast specialist – who ordered an X-ray and needle biopsy – was the truth revealed. Treatment involved chemotherapy, followed by surgery.

Prof Mokbel says: ‘The drugs will halt the progression of cancer so then doctors can carry out surgery to remove the breast and stop the spread of the disease. IBC is curable in 50 per cent of cases.’

In November, Melanie underwent a double mastectomy and lymph-node removal, followed by more chemotherapy to remove any traces of the cancer.

A few weeks before Christmas, she noticed another red patch appearing around one of her scars on her chest. A further biopsy confirmed the cancer had spread to lymph vessels in her skin.

In November, Melanie underwent a double
mastectomy and lymph-node removal, followed by more chemotherapy to
remove any traces of the cancer

She is set to undergo radiotherapy and further chemotherapy sessions and, despite doctors admitting a cure at this stage is unlikely, she remains positive.

‘This has happened to me partly because of the aggressive nature of my cancer and partly because of the late diagnosis,’ she says. ‘I urge any woman who has the symptoms I did, and has a gut instinct something serious is wrong, to persist until they get a cast-iron diagnosis.’

A spokesman for Warrington and Halton hospitals said: ‘We have an excellent breast service at the hospitals that provides a first-class screening and diagnostic service and aims to ensure that care is provided as quickly as possible when a positive diagnosis is made.

‘We have met Mrs O’Neill and are pleased that her treatment is progressing well. We will be responding in full to the concerns she has raised about her treatment and looking at the steps that we took at the hospitals and if anything could have been done differently.’

lMelanie O’Neill is supporting North West Cancer Research Fund, a charity that funds research into the causes of cancer and how it spreads. nwcrf.co.uk.