Inflammatory Breast Cancer: The Telltale Symptoms

Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Rogel Cancer Center

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare and very aggressive disease form of breast cancer. It’s called “inflammatory” because the cancer cells block lymph vessels in the skin. This causes the breast to look swollen and red, or inflamed.

In most cases of inflammatory cancer, the type of cancer cells blocking the lymph vessels are invasive ductal carcinomas. This means they developed from the cells lining the milk ducts of the breast and then spread beyond the ducts.

Inflammatory breast cancer spreads quickly, often in a matter of weeks or months. For most patients, their cancer is either stage III — meaning it’s spread throughout the breast, but not to the nearby lymph nodes. If the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, it’s stage IV.

Characteristics of inflammatory breast cancer:

  • Inflammatory breast cancer tends to be diagnosed at younger ages (compared to the ages of patients with other forms of breast cancer)
  • Inflammatory breast cancer is rare – out of all the kinds of breast cancer diagnosed in the United States, only 1 – 5% of them will be inflammatory.
  • Inflammatory breast cancer is more common and diagnosed at younger ages in Black women than in white women.
  • Inflammatory breast tumors usually are hormone receptor negative, which means they cannot be treated with hormone therapies, such as tamoxifen, that interfere with the growth of cancer cells fueled by estrogen.
  • Inflammatory breast cancer is more common in obese women than in women of normal weight.
  • Inflammatory breast cancer can occur in men, but usually at an older age than in women.

Inflammatory breast cancer symptoms include:

  • swelling and redness over a third or more of the breast.
  • the skin of the breast may appear pink, reddish purple, or bruised
  • the skin may appear pitted, like the skin of an orange
  • rapid increase in breast size
  • breasts feeling heavy, burning or tender
  • a nipple facing inward
  • swollen lymph nodes under the arm, collarbone or both

Please note these symptoms may be subtle, and often are mistaken for other things like infection or injury. This is why women with inflammatory breast cancer often don’t get diagnosed in the early stages of their disease.

Inflammatory breast cancer can be difficult to diagnose. Often, there is no lump that can be felt during a physical exam or seen in a screening mammogram. Since this cancer impacts younger women – whose breasts still have dense tissue – it makes cancer detection in a screening mammogram more difficult.

Inflammatory breast cancer treatment

Inflammatory breast cancer is generally treated first with chemotherapy to help shrink the tumor, then with surgery to remove the tumor, followed by radiation therapy. This approach to treatment is called a multimodal approach. Studies have found that women with inflammatory breast cancer who are treated with a multimodal approach have better responses to therapy and longer survival.

This is an aggressive and fast-growing cancer. Women with this cancer don’t tend to survive as long as women diagnosed with other types of breast cancer. Your doctor’s prediction of how well your treatment will work depends on the tumor size, whether the cancer has traveled to the lymph nodes and how well the cancer shrinks when chemotherapy is given. There are some very effective treatments for inflammatory breast cancer. Your doctor will work with you to find the treatment that is right for you.

If you or a loved one suspects triple-negative breast cancer, please call and speak to one of our Cancer AnswerLine&rade; nurses: 800-865-1125 (Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm EST). They are experienced in oncology care, including helping patients and their families who have questions about cancer. They can also assist you in getting the appointment process started, if you decide to have your care at the U-M Rogel Cancer Center.

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