Inflammatory Breast Cancer

What is Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

Inflammatory breast cancer is characterized by redness and swelling of the breast tissue. The redness and swelling occur when the lymphatic vessels are blocked by cancer cells. It can visually mimic a breast infection (mastitis) before the diagnosis is confirmed.

It is a particularly aggressive and rare stage III or IV breast cancer that usually starts in milk duct cells. The direct cause is unknown. It most often strikes younger women, African-American women, and those who are obese. However, the risk increases with age. It can also strike men, but they are usually older when diagnosed.

Diagnostic tests include

  • Physical exam
  • Imaging
  • Tissue biopsy

What are the Symptoms of Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

Because inflammatory breast cancer advances very quickly, it can appear in between scheduled mammograms and physical exams. It often goes undetected anyway because it cannot be felt with the fingertips. It is not lumpy like other types of breast cancers. Therefore it can even go undetected on mammograms.

Symptoms include

  • Unusual breast warmth
  • Pitted or ribbed breast tissue (orange peel appearance)
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Enlargement or heaviness of one breast
  • Skin discoloration
  • Achiness, painful or tender breast
  • Inverted or flat nipple
  • Swollen lymph nodes around collarbone and/or under arm
  • Quickly changing abnormalities

Inflammatory Breast Cancer Causes

The direct causes of inflammatory breast cancer remain unknown currently, but doctors do know that the condition is the result of a defective cell in one of the breast ducts. Mutations within the affected cell cause it to divide and multiply at a highly accelerated rate. As more and more abnormal cells are created, they invade and obstruct the lymphatic vessels within the skin of that breast. When this happens, the obstruction causes the breast to become red, swollen, and dimpled.

While inflammatory breast cancer primarily affects women, men are capable of contracting the condition as well. Studies have shown that race also plays a part, revealing that black women face a greater risk of developing this form of breast cancer than white women. Obesity is also a risk factor. Women of a healthier weight and body type are far less likely than overweight individuals to contract inflammatory breast cancer.

How is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Treated?

Treatments for inflammatory breast cancer depends on the stage and overall health.

Treatments include

  • Chemotherapy
  • Surgical removal of the tumor
  • Radiation therapy
  • Hormone therapy – if hormone receptors are responsive
  • A combination of treatments and therapies to lessen the risk of recurrence
  • Clinical trials

Inflammatory Breast Cancer Prevention

There is no proven way to prevent inflammatory breast cancer, but there are three ways to reduce your risk of developing cancer. The first option is a mastectomy and this is most commonly an option for women with BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutations. When both breasts receive this procedure, the risk of contracting breast cancer is reduced by 95%.

A second preventative treatment is called chemoprevention and involves taking medication that blocks certain hormones, preventing the development of breast cancer. The drugs, called selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs), are not a variation of chemotherapy. They simply act to block estrogen receptors in certain tissues.

Finally, lifestyle changes can significantly reduce the risk of contracting many types of cancer, including inflammatory breast cancer. Doctors recommend between 30 and 60 minutes of moderate to high-intensity physical activity per day.

Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
January 30, 2018
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