What Is Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

All breast cancers are not alike, and one of the most distinctive types is a particularly aggressive form known as inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). With visible symptoms similar to inflammation or infection, such as redness and swelling of the breast, this type of cancer is quite rare. Research suggests that only 1% to 3% of all breast cancers are inflammatory breast cancer, but since it is a uniquely aggressive cancer, we think it is certainly worth understanding the symptoms, risk factors, and prevention tools.

Symptoms of Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer occurs when cancer cells in the breast block lymph vessels in the skin, which produces visible symptoms in the way the breast looks and feels. The affected breast might appear red and irritated, with the skin thickening and becoming textured like an orange peel. It can feel quite tender and itchy, and feel warmer and heavier than the other, unaffected breast.

If you observe these symptoms, though, don’t panic. They are also common in less serious infections and inflammations unrelated to cancer, but should still warrant a visit to the doctor and careful monitoring.

Early Signs of Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Unfortunately, inflammatory breast cancer is usually difficult to detect at its early stages. It rarely causes lumps, so monthly breast self-exams and clinical breast exams often don’t trigger any warning signs. Mammograms may not catch the early signs either. There are few signs of inflammatory breast cancer until its visible symptoms appear, and by that time, the cancer has already reached an advanced stage (usually Stage IIIB) and spread into the skin. (Read more about the stages of breast cancer.)

Inflammatory Breast Cancer Prognosis

Since it is difficult to diagnose inflammatory breast cancer early, its prognosis is less favorable than other forms of breast cancer. Currently, the 5-year survival rate for inflammatory breast cancer is only about 40%, compared to 87% of all breast cancers combined.

Part of the reasoning behind these intimidating breast cancer statistics, are simply a result of its traditionally late diagnosis; other Stage IIIB breast cancers have a 5-year survival rate of 41%, quite similar to inflammatory breast cancer. Treatment usually involves chemotherapy followed by surgery and radiation, and many opportunities to participate in clinical trials are available because this cancer is so rare and needs further research.

Risk Factors for Inflammatory Breast Cancers

Inflammatory breast cancer tends to affect women earlier in life (52 versus 57), and African-American women are at a comparatively higher risk. Beyond that, many of the risk factors for IBC are similar to those for other cancers, especially when it comes to diet and obesity.

Since it is so rare, research is still uncovering the root causes of inflammatory breast cancer. We do know, however, that practicing good nutrition and regular exercise can help prevent breast cancers of all kinds. And in this case, inflammatory breast cancer is no exception!

SOURCES: National Cancer Institute, American Cancer Society