Inflammatory breast cancer
This page is about a rare type of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer. There is information about
Inflammatory breast cancer
This is a rare type of breast cancer. Between 1 and 4 out of every 100 breast cancers diagnosed (1 to 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.
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. The standard treatment for this type of breast cancer is to have chemotherapy as the first treatment. After chemotherapy you are most likely to have surgery followed by radiotherapy. You may also have hormone therapy or biological therapy after your surgery, to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.
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This is a rare type of breast cancer. Between 1 and 4 out of every 100 breast cancers diagnosed (1 to 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.
Because the lymph channels are blocked, the breast may become
- 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. Mastitis is uncommon in women who are not pregnant or breast feeding, and particularly rare in women who are past their menopause. But if your doctor suspects that you could have mastitis, they may give you a course of antibiotics first, to see if that clears up the symptoms.
Your GP will refer you to a breast cancer specialist, who will arrange some tests. 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. You may have a different type of scan, such as a breast ultrasound, instead.
The treatment for inflammatory breast cancer can be slightly different than for other types of breast cancer. The standard treatment is to have chemotherapy as your 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 will have surgery, unless there is any reason why this isn't suitable for you. For inflammatory breast cancer, you are most likely to have your whole breast removed (a mastectomy). NICE guidelines say that in exceptional circumstances some women may be able to have only the area of cancer removed, with a surrounding area of healthy tissue (wide local excision). But for most women, mastectomy is the best option.
After surgery you have radiotherapy to help stop the cancer coming back. If your breast cancer has hormone receptors, you will have hormone therapy tablets for some years. If your cancer has receptors for biological therapy drugs, your doctor may also suggest 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 the treatment options with you. Do ask questions so that you understand which treatments you are being offered, and why.
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 or to other organs
- 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.
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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