What You Should Know About Inflammatory Breast Cancer

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March 27, 2019
Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare but aggressive form of breast cancer. This cancer, which accounts for 1% to 5% of all breast cancer diagnoses in the United States, forms in the cells that line the breasts’ milk ducts, but quickly spreads to nearby lymph nodes and sometimes, to other tissues in the body. The cancer is called “inflammatory” because the cancer cells usually block the lymph vessels in the breast. This blockage causes a buildup of fluid, which then leads to inflammation that is usually red and tender to the touch. 

How Does Inflammatory Breast Cancer Differ From Typical Breast Cancers?

Compared to slower-growing forms of breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer progresses and spreads through the body quickly. In some cases, it spreads in a matter of months or even weeks. Inflammatory breast cancer is also harder to treat than other breast cancers since it has usually spread to distant parts of the body (metastasized) by the time it is diagnosed. Traditional treatments for breast cancer (such as hormone treatment using the drug tamoxifen) aren’t effective treatments for inflammatory breast cancer. Breast cancer specialists report that inflammatory breast cancers are usually diagnosed more frequently in younger patients than other breast cancers. This type of cancer is also more common in women of African-American descent and people who are obese.

Signs and Symptoms of Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer can be hard to diagnose because it often doesn’t cause a breast lump like other types of breast cancer. This means inflammatory breast cancer may not be detected on a mammogram.

The most common symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include:

  • Swelling of the breast
  • Tenderness or itching of the breast
  • Redness involving one-third or more of the skin, on or around the breast
  • Hardening of the breast
  • Pitting or ridging of the skin of the breast (texture resembling an orange peel)
  • Affected breast feels warmer or heavier than your other breast
  • Swollen lymph nodes beneath the arm or near the collarbone
  • Inverted nipple (especially if that was not typical for you)

If you have any of the signs or symptoms listed above, that doesn’t mean you have inflammatory breast cancer. The symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer are very similar to other more common breast infections. However, you should make an appointment with your primary care physician right away for evaluation.

How is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?

Inflammatory breast cancer spreads rapidly

Your doctor may first suspect you have a breast infection and prescribe antibiotics if you are exhibiting any symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer. Because inflammatory breast cancer spreads rapidly, it is important to follow up with your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve within 7 to 10 days. If your primary care doctor suspects you might have breast cancer, he or she will refer you to a breast cancer specialist.

If an oncologist suspects inflammatory cancer, he or she will most likely order a biopsy and imaging tests, such as a mammogram or an ultrasound.

If cancer is detected, CT scans, lymph node biopsies, and bone scans are used to stage the cancer and find out if it has spread to other parts of the body. Treatment for inflammatory breast cancer depends on how advanced the disease is. Breast cancer doctors generally treat inflammatory breast cancer first with chemotherapy, then with surgery to remove the tumor, followed by radiation therapy treatment. In regards to treating inflammatory breast cancer specifically, this multimodal approach has been shown to be most effective.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer or any type of breast cancer, you undoubtedly have many questions. If you are researching your options for breast cancer treatment, we encourage you to contact the location nearest you.