Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare but aggressive form of breast cancer. Accounting for less than 5% of all breast cancer diagnoses, the cancer forms in the cells that line the breasts’ milk ducts, but quickly spreads to nearby lymph nodes and sometimes other tissues in the body. The cancer is called “inflammatory” because the cancer cells usually block the lymph vessels in the breast. This causes fluid to build up, which leads to inflammation that is usually red and tender.
How is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Different than Typical Breast Cancers?
Compared to slower-growing forms of breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer progresses and spreads through the body quickly – sometimes in a matter of weeks.
Inflammatory breast cancer is harder to treat than other breast cancer types because it has usually spread to distant parts of the body 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 doctors report that compared to other breast cancers, inflammatory breast cancers are usually diagnosed in younger patients. This type of cancer is also more common in African-American women and people who are obese.
Signs and Symptoms of Inflammatory Breast Cancer
Unlike other types of breast cancer that are diagnosed after a lump is discovered in the breast, inflammatory breast cancer often doesn’t cause a breast lump and may not be detected on a mammogram. The most common symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer are:
Swelling of the breast,
Redness in the skin on or around the breast,
Changes in the texture and appearance of the skin of the breast (specifically pitting or ridging that resembles the skin of an orange peel.)
Rapid increase in breast size,
Tenderness or itching,
Hardening of the 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 more common breast infections such as mastitis are similar to the symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer. It does mean, however, that you should make an appointment with your primary care physician right away to be evaluated for the disease.
How is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?
If you visit your doctor exhibiting the symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer, he or she may suspect you have a breast infection and prescribe antibiotics. If your symptoms don’t improve within a week, you should let your doctor know. If your primary-care doctor suspects you might have breast cancer and you live in the Northwest, he or she will refer you to a breast cancer specialist in/or around the Portland and Vancouver areas. Because inflammatory breast cancer spreads rapidly, it’s important to follow up as soon as possible.
If an oncologist suspects inflammatory cancer, he or she will most likely order a biopsy, mammogram, and ultrasound. If cancer is detected, CT scans, lymph node biopsies and bone scans are used to find out if the cancer has spread.
If found, inflammatory breast cancer treatment depends on how advanced the cancer is. Breast cancer doctors may treat inflammatory breast cancer with chemotherapy, then refer a patient to a breast cancer surgeon to have the cancer removed. Radiation and possibly chemotherapy may be prescribed after surgery.