Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare, fast-growing cancer that requires immediate treatment. It causes symptoms similar to a breast infection. Signs of IBC may include redness, swelling, pain, enlargement of one breast and breast skin that resembles an orange peel. Treatments include chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare type of cancer that spreads quickly. Unlike most breast cancers, IBC doesn’t usually cause lumps in breast tissue. Instead, it appears as a rash, creating skin texture on the affected breast similar to an orange peel. IBC causes pain, redness, swelling and dimpling on the affected breast.
IBC results when cancer cells block lymph vessels — the small, hollow tubes that allow lymph fluid to drain out of your breast. The blockage leads to inflammation, causing symptoms that make it easy to mistake IBC for an infection.
IBC grows fast and requires immediate treatment. Healthcare providers usually treat IBC with chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy.
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Anyone can develop inflammatory breast cancer, but certain factors may raise your risk.
Inflammatory breast cancer occurs at different rates worldwide. It’s most common in North Africa. It accounts for as few as 4% of breast cancer cases in Tunisia and up to 11% of breast cancer diagnoses in Egypt. IBC is rare in the United States, making up only 1% to 5% of breast cancer cases.
Inflammatory breast cancer can be challenging to catch because it doesn’t often cause a lump like more common forms of breast cancer. Instead, the first signs are related to inflammation (redness, swelling, pain) in your affected breast. These symptoms make it easy to confuse IBC for a less serious condition, like an infection.
Symptoms of IBC progress quickly, over three to six weeks, and may include:
Most inflammatory breast cancer is considered invasive ductal carcinoma. “Ductal” carcinoma is cancer that forms from cells lining your milk ducts. An “invasive” ductal carcinoma is cancer that spreads beyond your milk ducts, invading healthy tissue. Researchers don’t know what causes these cells to become malignant (cancerous).
Inflammatory breast cancer develops when cancer cells block lymph vessels. Lymph vessels are hollow tubes in your lymphatic system that allow lymph fluid to drain out of your breast. The blockage causes your breast to become red, swollen and inflamed. In most cases of IBC, cancer cells spread outward (metastasize) from your lymph vessels. Cancer that has metastasized affects your other organs and is harder to treat.
Inflammatory breast cancer is rare, with symptoms similar to a more common condition — breast infections (mastitis). Your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics and see if it resolves your symptoms to rule out an infection. If they suspect IBC, they’ll order a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis and additional tests to see if the cancer’s spread beyond your breast.
Diagnosis involves a physical examination, imaging studies and a biopsy.
Biopsy results can help your healthcare provider stage the cancer, or determine whether it’s spread outside of your breast tissue. By the time IBC is diagnosed, it’s either stage III or stage IV. Stage III cancer has only spread to your breast tissue skin. Stage IV cancer has spread to other organs.
Your healthcare provider may order any of the following tests to determine if your cancer’s spread:
Inflammatory breast cancer treatments use a combination of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.
Depending on the characteristics of your cancer cells (discovered during the biopsy), you may receive treatments like targeted therapy, hormone therapy or immunotherapy.
Your healthcare provider may also recommend that you take part in a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a study that tests the safety and effectiveness of new cancer treatments. Treatments that are successful in clinical trials often become the standard treatment approaches.
Treatment for IBC may cause complications, such as lymphedema (pooling of lymphatic fluid) after surgery removing your lymph nodes.
Because IBC develops so quickly, the cancer has usually spread to other tissues (metastasis) by the time it’s diagnosed. You may need additional treatments if the cancer spreads to other parts of your body.
You can’t prevent inflammatory breast cancer. For the best outcomes, seek treatment early. Let your healthcare provider know about any breast changes as soon as possible.
IBC is considered a fast-growing (aggressive) cancer. It only takes a few weeks or months to progress. By the time it’s diagnosed, it’s already spread to your breast skin, making it at least a stage III cancer.
IBC usually develops quickly and spreads to other tissues outside of your breast. It often returns (recurs) after treatment. Early diagnosis and treatment are vital to managing the condition as effectively as possible.
Because IBC spreads quickly and is found later than other cancers, the outlook for people with this condition is generally not as good as for different types of breast cancer. Still, some people live many years after an IBC diagnosis. Your healthcare provider can explain your prognosis to you.
Contact your healthcare provider immediately if you notice any changes to your breast, even if you don’t feel a lump. With further testing, your provider can determine whether IBC may be a concern.
Contact your provider if you’re taking antibiotics for a breast infection — especially if you have the symptoms of IBC — and your symptoms don’t improve within a week.
Ask your healthcare provider about what your cancer diagnosis means for your treatment options and likely outcomes. Questions to ask include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare type of cancer that spreads quickly. Schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider immediately if you notice changes in your breasts, especially a change in one breast but not the other. The changes may be a sign of a less serious condition, like an infection. Still, IBC spreads fast. If your symptoms are a sign of inflammatory breast cancer, you’ll want to begin treatment as early as possible. Don’t delay seeking care that can potentially improve your prognosis.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/29/2022.
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