What is inflammatory breast cancer?

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare type of breast cancer accounting for around 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancer cases.
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare type of breast cancer accounting for around 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancer cases.

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare type of breast cancer accounting for around 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancer cases.

There are three main parts in a breast: lobules, ducts and connective tissue. The milk-producing glands form the lobules. Milk formed in the lobules is carried to the nipples through tube-like channels called the ducts. The connective tissue consists of fibrous and fatty tissues that surround and hold everything together. Breast cancer can be of various types depending upon the type of cells from which breast cancer originates. The most common types of breast cancer are invasive ductal carcinoma (breast cancer beginning in the ducts) and invasive lobular carcinoma (breast cancer beginning in the lobules). Other less common types of breast cancer include medullary carcinoma, Paget’s disease, mucinous carcinoma and IBC.

Although rare, IBC is quite aggressive because it develops and spreads quickly (in some cases within three to six months). It requires urgent diagnosis and treatment for achieving better outcomes in the affected person. The cancer is called IBC because its symptoms appear as though the breast is inflamed or infected. Unlike other types of breast cancer that cause a lump in the breast, IBC does not cause any mass or lump. It instead causes symptoms such as swollen, red and tender breasts. Unlike other types of breast cancer that occur in older women, IBC affects younger women (younger than 40 years of age). Because IBC causes nonspecific symptoms and no recognizable lump even on a mammogram, it is generally diagnosed late. This, coupled with its aggressive nature, leads to a poorer outcome in people with IBC than in those with most other breast cancer types.

How quickly do symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer appear

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) classically presents as an inflamed breast with no lump or mass. Inflammatory signs appear because the cancer cells block the lymph channels draining the excess fluid from the breast. Most symptoms generally appear within three to six months of the onset of cancer and include

  • Breast edema (swollen breasts)
  • Rash or redness involving more than one-third of the breast
  • Orange peel appearance of the breast skin (the breast skin appears pitted and thickened like an orange peel)
  • Nipple retraction or inversion on the affected side (the nipple appears to point inward)
  • Breast asymmetry (the affected breast looks larger and feels heavier because of swelling)
  • The affected breast is warm to touch
  • Breast pain and tenderness
  • Itching over the breast
  • Swollen or enlarged lymph nodes under the arms or near the collarbone

Some of these symptoms may occur in noncancerous conditions such as a breast infection. IBC, however, needs to be considered a potential cause and diagnosed early for proper management.


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How is inflammatory breast cancer diagnosed?

Your doctor may diagnose inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) by

  • Taking your detailed medical history including the appearance of symptoms, any underlying health conditions and any personal or family history of breast or ovarian cancer or chest radiation therapy in the past.
  • Performing a thorough physical examination of the breasts and other relevant sites.
  • Ordering imaging tests such as a mammogram, breast ultrasound or breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
  • Getting a biopsy done that includes taking a small tissue sample from the breast and examining it under the microscope. The biopsy sample may also help stage and grade cancer and determine the presence of special proteins (such as hormone receptors) that help the doctor plan a proper treatment regimen.

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Medically Reviewed on 4/30/2021