Inflammatory breast cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare, fast-growing type of breast cancer. It accounts for 1–4% of all breast cancers.

Inflammatory breast cancer gets its name because the skin of the breast has a red, inflamed appearance. This change can happen quite quickly and can be similar in appearance to some infections of the breast. The red and swollen appearance is caused by breast cancer cells blocking tiny lymph channels in the breast tissue and skin. The lymph channels are part of the lymphatic system, which plays an important role in the body’s defence against infections.

Men can also get inflammatory breast cancer, but this is extremely rare.

Symptoms

The symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer can appear over a short space of time, usually days or weeks.

The most common symptoms are warmth and redness or swelling of the breast, which may make your breast feel sore. Ridges may appear on the skin or the breast may appear pitted like the skin of an orange (this is often described using the French term, peau d’orange).

As with other forms of breast cancer, some women may find a lump while others experience pain in the breast or nipple. Some may have a nipple discharge or the nipple may be inverted (pulled in).

Diagnosis

Inflammatory breast cancer can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms can be similar to benign (not cancer) conditions such as mastitis. Once you have been referred to a specialist, certain tests may be done to help establish the diagnosis. These include:

  • mammogram (a breast x-ray)
  • ultrasound biopsy (using a needle taking a sample of breast tissue, lymph nodes, or an area of change to the skin of the breast or nipple)
  • an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan.

Once the breast cancer diagnosis is made, other tests such as a chest x-ray, liver ultrasound, CT (computerised tomography) scan or bone scan may be suggested to check whether or not the cancer has spread outside the breast.

If you are recommended to have any of these tests, your hospital treatment team will be able to explain what they involve and give you more information. You can also contact Breast Cancer Care’s free Support Line on 0808 800 6000 (Text Relay 18001) for further information.

Treatment

Once you have been diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, your specialist team will discuss your treatment options with you and prepare a treatment plan. The plan will be based on information from your test results.

Treatment is usually started quickly and involves treating the whole body with drugs (systemic treatment) as well as the affected breast and the area around it (local treatment). The type of treatment you are offered depends on the results of your biopsy and other tests that may have been done.

Although it is a more serious form of breast cancer, treatment keep getting better, which means that the outlook for people with inflammatory breast cancer is more positive now than in the past. Ongoing clinical trials are looking at new and different ways of treating inflammatory breast cancer.

A combination of the following treatments may be used:

Coping with inflammatory breast cancer

Everybody responds differently to their diagnosis and has their own way of coping.

It is important that you feel able to talk to your specialist or breast care nurse about any questions or concerns you may have.

You may feel alone, particularly as inflammatory breast cancer is a rare form of breast cancer. Remember that there are people who can support you so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

You can let other people know how you are feeling, particularly your family and friends. This will help them to know how best to support you. It can also help to discuss your feelings or worries with your breast care nurse or your specialist.

Some people find it helpful to discuss their feelings and concerns with their breast care nurse or specialist. If you’d like to talk through your feelings and concerns in more depth over a period of time, a counsellor or psychologist may be more appropriate. Your breast care nurse, specialist or GP can arrange this. If you want to talk you can also call our Support Line on 0808 800 6000.

Last reviewed: November 2014
Next planned review begins 2016

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