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Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare but aggressive form of cancer making up only 1-5% of all breast cancer cases in the US. This particular type of cancer forms in the cells that line the milk ducts of the breast but then quickly spreads to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body. It is referred to as "inflammatory" because the cancer cells usually block the breast's lymphatic vessels, causing fluid to build up, creating inflammation in the breast(s).

What Makes Inflammatory Breast Cancer Different from Other Types of Breast Cancers?

It's important to understand the ways that inflammatory breast cancer is different from other forms of breast cancer. 

Other types of breast cancer may be slow-growing, but inflammatory breast cancer usually progresses quickly and spreads throughout the body–sometimes in a matter of weeks. 

  • There is often no lump present for inflammatory breast cancer and might not be detected on a mammogram.
  • Inflammatory breast cancer spreads faster than other forms of breast cancer, making it harder to treat. 
  • Inflammatory breast cancer usually does not have hormone receptors. Other types of breast cancer may be fueled by estrogen or progesterone.  
  • The average age of patients with this diagnosis is 57 for caucasian women and 52 for African American women. These ages are five years younger than the average of women diagnosed with other forms of breast cancer. 

Signs and Symptoms of Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer can be hard to diagnose because it can seem like other conditions such as a milk duct infection which either goes away on its own or with antibiotics. 

The most common symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer are:

  • Swelling of the breast
  • Redness involving one-third or more of the skin, on or around the breast
  • Pitting or ridging of the skin of the breast (texture resembling an orange peel)
  • Bruising of the breast that doesn't go away
  • Tenderness or itching of the breast
  • Affected breast feels warmer or heavier than your other breast
  • Hardening of the breast
  • Swollen lymph nodes beneath the arm or near the collarbone
  • Inverted nipple (especially if that was not typical for you)

Many of the symptoms listed here can also be signs of other breast infections and conditions. If you notice any changes in your breast, then you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.

Stages of Inflammatory Breast Cancer 

Understanding the stage of cancer will help you and your doctor better understand how advanced the cancer is and the best path forward. Inflammatory breast cancer is typically in one of these stages:

  • Stage IIIB: All Inflammatory breast cancers start in this stage because it involves the skin of your breast. 
  • Stage IIIC: At this stage, the cancer has spread to lymph nodes near the collarbone or inside your chest.
  • Stage IV: The cancer has spread outside your breast and lymph nodes and has impacted other parts of the body. 

How is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?

As mentioned, many of the symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer mimic those of other breast infections. If you experience these symptoms, it's not uncommon for your doctor to start with a prescription of antibiotics to clear up the suspected breast infection.

However, if your symptoms don't improve within 7-10 days, you should tell your doctor. Inflammatory breast cancer spreads rapidly, so it's important to follow up as soon as possible. If your primary care doctor suspects you might have breast cancer, he or she will refer you to a breast cancer specialist. 

If an oncologist suspects inflammatory breast cancer, he or she will most likely order a biopsy and some form of imaging test. 

If cancer is detected, CT scans, lymph node biopsies, and bone scans are used to stage cancer and determine if it has spread to other parts of the body. 

At this point, your breast cancer specialist will talk to you about treatment options. However, the path forward will greatly depend on how advanced the cancer is. Oncologists usually treat inflammatory breast cancer first with chemotherapy, then with surgery, followed by radiation therapy treatment. However, your exact treatment plan will be based on many factors about your health and customized for you.

If you've been recently diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, then please contact us at Minnesota Oncology. We will have an appointment available with one of our breast cancer specialists within 48 hours. We proudly serve Minneapolis, St. Paul, Plymouth, Coon Rapids, Fridley, Woodbury, Burnsville, Chaska, Edina, Maplewood, and Waconia locations. We are here to answer your questions and provide the treatment and support you need throughout your breast cancer treatment journey.