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What are the signs of inflammatory breast cancer?

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Updated on October 20, 2020

What is inflammatory breast cancer?

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer that occurs when malignant cells block the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast. IBC is different from other forms of breast cancer because it commonly does not cause a lump or mass.

This cancer accounts for only 1 to 5 percent of all cases of breast cancer. It has a five-year survival rate of only 40 percent. It’s important to recognize the signs of inflammatory breast cancer and speak with a doctor immediately if you notice changes in your breast.

Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer

Because IBC is an aggressive form of cancer, the disease can progress rapidly within days, weeks, or months. Because of this, receiving an early diagnosis is extremely important.

While you usually don’t develop a lump that’s characteristic of other breast cancers, you may have several of the following symptoms.

Breast discoloration

An early sign of inflammatory breast cancer is discoloration of the breast. A small section may appear red, pink, or purple.

The discoloration can look like a bruise, so you might shrug it off as nothing serious. But breast redness is a classic symptom of inflammatory breast cancer. Don’t ignore unexplained bruising on your breast.

Breast pain

Due to the inflammatory nature of this particular cancer, your breast may look and feel different. For example, inflammation can cause your breast to feel warm to the touch. You may also have breast tenderness and pain.

Lying on your stomach may be uncomfortable. Depending on the severity of tenderness, wearing a bra may be painful. In addition to pain and tenderness, IBC can cause persistent itching in the breast, especially around the nipple.

Skin dimpling

Another telltale sign of inflammatory breast cancer is skin dimpling, or pitted skin. Dimpling — which can make the skin resemble the skin of an orange peel — is a concerning sign.

Change in nipple appearance

A change in the shape of the nipple is another possible early sign of inflammatory breast cancer. Your nipple may become flat or retract inside the breast.

A pinch test can help determine if your nipples are flat or inverted. Place your thumb and index finger around your areola and gently squeeze. A normal nipple moves forward after pinching. A flat nipple doesn’t move forward or backward. A pinch causes an inverted nipple to retract into the breast.

Having flat or inverted nipples doesn’t necessarily mean you have inflammatory breast cancer. These types of nipples are normal for some women and are no cause for concern. On the other hand, if your nipples change, speak with the doctor immediately.

Enlarged lymph nodes

IBC can cause enlarged lymph nodes. If you suspect enlarged lymph nodes under your arm or above your collarbone, consult your doctor quickly.

Sudden change in breast size

Inflammatory breast cancer can change the appearance of the breasts. This change can occur suddenly. Because this cancer can cause inflammation and swelling, breast enlargement or thickness can occur.

The affected breast may appear noticeably larger than the other breast or feel heavy and hard. Some women with IBC also experience breast shrinkage and their breast decreases in size.

If you’ve always had symmetrical breasts and you notice a sudden increase or decrease in the size of one breast, speak with your doctor to rule out inflammatory breast cancer.

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Inflammatory breast cancer vs. breast infection

If you have any of the above symptoms, you might think you have inflammatory breast cancer. Before you panic, it’s important to note that IBC symptoms can mimic those of mastitis, a breast infection.

Mastitis can cause swelling, pain, and redness in the breasts. This condition is more common in breastfeeding women, but can also develop in women who don’t breastfeed. The infection can be caused by a blocked milk duct or bacteria entering the skin through a crack or break around the nipple.

Mastitis may also cause a fever, headache, and nipple discharge. These three symptoms are not typical of IBC. Since the symptoms of mastitis and inflammatory breast cancer can be confused, you should never diagnose yourself with either condition.

Let your doctor make the diagnosis. If you have mastitis, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. Your symptoms should improve within a couple of days. Mastitis can rarely cause a breast abscess, which your doctor may have to drain.

If your doctor diagnoses mastitis but the infection doesn’t improve or worsens, follow up quickly with another appointment.

Mastitis that doesn’t respond to antibiotics could be inflammatory breast cancer. Your doctor can schedule an imaging test or a biopsy to diagnose or rule out cancer.

Next steps

After you’re diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, the next step is for your doctor to stage the cancer. To do this, your doctor may order more imaging tests, such as a CT or bone scan, to see if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

Treatment for inflammatory breast cancer can include:

  • chemotherapy, which is a combination of drugs to kill cancer cells
  • surgery to remove the breast and affected lymph nodes
  • radiation therapy, which uses high-power energy beams to destroy and stop the spread of cancerous cells

A cancer diagnosis is devastating and frightening. Your chances of beating the disease increases with an early diagnosis and beginning treatment as soon as possible.

While undergoing treatment, seek support to cope with your disease. Recovery can be a rollercoaster of emotions. It’s important to learn about your condition and treatment options.

Seek support from others as well. This could include joining a local support group for cancer patients and survivors, working with a therapist who helps cancer patients, or confiding in family and friends.