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Inflammatory breast cancer

This is a rare type of breast cancer. Only about 1 to 4 breast cancers out of every 100 diagnosed (1 or 4%) are this type. It is called inflammatory because the breast tissue becomes inflamed. The cancer cells block the smallest lymph channels in the breast. The lymph channels drain excess fluid away from the tissues and organs.

Symptoms

Because the lymph channels are blocked, the breast becomes swollen, red, firm or hard, and hot to the touch. It may be painful, but this is not always the case. Other possible symptoms include thickening of the breast tissue, ridges, or pitting of the skin of the breast. Sometimes there is a lump in the breast. The nipple may become inverted (pulled in to the breast), or there may be a discharge from the nipple.

Inflammatory breast cancer symptoms can appear quite suddenly. It is often confused with an infection of the breast (mastitis).

Treatment for inflammatory breast cancer

The treatment for inflammatory breast cancer can be slightly different than for other types of breast cancer. Usually, chemotherapy is the first treatment. After chemotherapy you are most likely to have surgery. You may also have radiotherapy and hormone therapy or biological therapy after your surgery, to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.

 

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What inflammatory breast cancer is

This is a rare type of breast cancer. Only about 1 to 4 breast cancers out of every 100 diagnosed (1 or 4%) are this type. It is called inflammatory because the breast tissue becomes inflamed. The cancer cells block the smallest lymph channels in the breast. The lymph channels (or lymph ducts) are part of the lymphatic system. They drain excess tissue fluid away from the body tissues and organs.

 

Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer

Because the lymph channels are blocked, the breast may become

  • Swollen
  • Red
  • Firm or hard
  • Hot to the touch

The breast can also be painful in inflammatory breast cancer, but this is not always the case. 

Other possible symptoms include

  • Ridges or thickening of the skin of the breast
  • Pitted skin, like orange peel
  • A lump in the breast
  • A discharge from the nipple
  • An inverted nipple – the nipple is pulled into the breast

Inflammatory breast cancer symptoms can appear quite suddenly. It is often confused with an infection of the breast (mastitis) because the symptoms are very similar. Your doctor or nurse may give you a course of antibiotics at first, to see if that clears up the symptoms. 

 

Diagnosing inflammatory breast cancer

The same tests are used to diagnose inflammatory breast cancer as for any other type of breast cancer. For some women, it is not possible to do a mammogram if the breast is swollen and painful but other tests can be used instead.

 

Treating inflammatory breast cancer

The treatment for inflammatory breast cancer can be slightly different than for other types of breast cancer. Usually chemotherapy is the first treatment. This is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy. You have this first to help control the cancer cells in the breast and reduce the swelling. It also aims to destroy any cancer cells that may have spread elsewhere in the body.

After chemotherapy, you are most likely to have surgery. The type of surgery will depend on

  • The size of the cancer when you were diagnosed
  • How the cancer has responded to the chemotherapy
  • Where the tumour is in the breast

Removing the whole breast (mastectomy) is the most common operation for inflammatory breast cancer. But some women can have only the area of cancer removed with a surrounding area of healthy tissue (wide local excision). You may also have radiotherapy and hormone therapy after your surgery, to try to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. If your cancer has receptors for biological therapy drugs you may be offered biological therapy. 

Treatment options will also depend on your general health and whether you have any other medical conditions. Your treatment team will discuss the pros and cons of your treatment options with you.

 

Statistics and outlook for inflammatory breast cancer

Many factors can influence the outlook for women with inflammatory breast cancer. These include

  • The exact position of the cancer
  • How big the cancer is and whether it has spread only to the lymph nodes (stage 3 cancer) or to other organs (stage 4 cancer)
  • How abnormal the cancer cells look under the microscope (the grade)
  • Your age
  • Your general health
  • Whether the cancer cells have receptors for hormone therapies
  • How well the cancer responds to treatment

Inflammatory breast cancer can develop quickly and spread to other parts of the body. So, in general, the outlook for women with this type is not as good as for women diagnosed with other types of breast cancer.

According to American statistics 

  • If the cancer has only spread to the lymph nodes, around half of the women will live for 5 years or longer 
  • If the cancer has spread to other organs, around half of the women will live for 2 years or longer

An individual woman’s outlook could be better or worse, depending on the factors above.

 

More information about breast cancer

We have detailed information about breast cancer treatments in this section.

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our breast cancer organisations page gives details of other people who can provide information about breast cancer and its treatment. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. 

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 24 July 2014