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Inflammatory Breast Cancer

What is Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

Inflammatory breast cancer is an uncommon form of rapidly advancing breast cancer that usually accounts for approximately 1% to 3% of all breast cancer diagnoses. Inflammatory breast cancer is a form of invasive breast cancer that progresses quickly and should be differentiated by physicians from other forms of advanced breast cancer with similar characteristics. Inflammatory breast cancer causes the breast to appear swollen and inflamed. This appearance is often caused when cancer cells block the lymphatic vessels in the skin of the breast, preventing the normal flow of lymph fluid and leading to reddened, swollen and infect-looking breast skin—hence the designation "inflammatory" breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer is not caused by infection or inflammation as was once believed.

With inflammatory breast cancer, the breast skin has a thick, pitted appearance that is classically described as peau d’orange (resembling an orange peel). Sometimes the skin develops ridges and small bumps that resemble hives.

How is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Diagnosed?

The symptoms associated with inflammatory breast cancer are usually the first cause of concern. These symptoms may include:

  • breast redness
  • swelling
  • warmth
  • ridges or pits in the breast skin (a condition referred to as peau d’orange; resembling an orange peel)
  • a change in the size or shape of the breast
  • nipple discharge or an inverted (pulled back) nipple
  • swollen lymph nodes

Inflammatory breast cancer can sometimes be mistaken by patients and physicians as a breast infection (or mastitis) because its symptoms , and the rapidity with which they appear (sometimes within weeks) resemble those associated with infections. However, while most breast infections will respond to antibiotics, inflammatory breast cancer will not. In fact, symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer do not usually get better or worse as infections do. If symptoms persist more than two or three weeks despite treatment, further testing and a breast biopsy should be performed to determine whether cancer is present.

Inflammatory breast cancer is typically classified as Stage III cancer, unless it has spread to the lymph nodes or other body organs. In these cases, it is classified as Stage IV breast cancer, or advanced breast cancer. Click here for more information on breast cancer stages.