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Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Condition Basics

What is inflammatory breast cancer?

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare, fast-growing type of breast cancer. It is often called IBC for short.

Unlike other breast cancers, this type of cancer may not cause a lump in the breast. So regular breast exams and mammograms often fail to catch it early. Because it grows so fast, it usually has spread by the time it is diagnosed.

What causes it?

In this type of cancer, the cancer cells often do not form lumps in the breast. Instead, the cancer cells block the lymph vessels that normally keep lymph fluid moving in the breast.

When the normal flow of lymph fluid is blocked, it can make the breast look swollen and red and feel warm, as if it were infected. The swelling may cause lots of tiny dimples in the skin. Sometimes it causes a lump that grows quickly, but you can have inflammatory breast cancer without having a lump in your breast.

What are the symptoms?

Inflammatory breast cancer can cause one or more of these symptoms:

  • A breast that is swollen, red, and warm
  • A breast that is tender or painful
  • An area of itching in the breast
  • A recent change in the nipple. Sometimes the nipple pulls back into the breast instead of pointing outward. This is called a retracted nipple.
  • A change in the skin, especially an area that looks thick and pitted, like an orange peel. Sometimes there are small bumps that look like a rash or hives.
  • An area of the breast that looks bruised
  • Swollen lymph glands (lymph nodes) in the armpit

How is it diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects you have inflammatory breast cancer, you may have a mammogram. The doctor may also take a sample of breast tissue (biopsy). The sample is checked for cancer cells. If cancer is found, you'll have more tests to see if the cancer has spread.

Cancer cells from the biopsy will be tested to find out more about the cancer. For example, tests can show if the cancer cells have receptors for hormones such as estrogen or progesterone. This helps your doctor know which medicines will work best for you.

It's important to diagnose inflammatory breast cancer quickly so that treatment can start right away. But this type of cancer is rare. It may be mistaken for another problem, like mastitis. Mastitis is usually treated with antibiotics. If your doctor prescribed antibiotics and your symptoms don't seem to be getting better after a week, call your doctor.

How is inflammatory breast cancer treated?

Treatment is based on the stage of the cancer and other things, such as your overall health. It's important to start treatment right away for this fast-growing cancer.

The main treatments are:


These medicines kill fast-growing cells, including cancer cells and some normal cells. They're given before surgery to shrink cancer or after surgery to help keep cancer from coming back.

The most common surgery removes the breast (mastectomy) and lymph nodes under the arm.
Radiation therapy.
This uses high-dose X-rays to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumours. Most people have radiation after surgery.

Other treatments include:

Endocrine therapy.
These medicines block hormones that cause certain cancers to grow.
Targeted therapy.
These medicines target cancer cells and may cause less harm to normal cells. They help keep cancer from growing or spreading.
This treatment helps your immune system fight cancer.

Sometimes a clinical trial may be a good choice.

Your doctor will talk with you about your options and then make a treatment plan.

How do you cope?

Inflammatory breast cancer is a very serious disease. But there is reason for hope, because treatment is improving. These days, many people are still free of cancer after treatment. Some are even free of cancer for 15 years or longer.

Talking with others who have breast cancer can help. To find a support group, contact your local branch of the Canadian Cancer Society.

You may want to talk with your doctor about if you are a good candidate for genetic testing for breast cancer. This can help other members of your family to understand more about their risk of breast cancer.


Current as of: February 28, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
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