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Inflammatory breast cancer

This is a rare type of breast cancer. Find out about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, and about research and clinical trials.

What inflammatory breast cancer is

In inflammatory breast cancer, the cancer cells block the smallest lymph channels in the breast. The lymph channels (or lymph ducts) are part of the lymphatic system. They normally drain excess tissue fluid away from the body tissues and organs. The lymph channels can’t do this job properly if they are blocked.

This is a rare type of breast cancer. Between 1 and 5 out of 100 breast cancers (1 to 5%) are inflammatory breast cancers.

Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer

Because the lymph channels are blocked, the breast might 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.

Inflammatory breast cancer is often confused with an infection of the breast (mastitis). This is because the symptoms are very similar. Mastitis is uncommon in women who aren't pregnant or breast feeding and it is particularly rare in women who have had their menopause.

Your doctor might give you a course of antibiotics if they think that you could have mastitis. But they will refer you to a specialist if they think you are unlikely to have an infection or if your symptoms don’t clear up after antibiotics.

While inflammatory breast cancer can cause these particular symptoms, it’s worth being aware of the general symptoms of breast cancer.

Make an appointment to see your doctor if you notice any change in the look or feel of your breasts.

Diagnosing inflammatory breast cancer

Your GP usually refers you to a breast clinic for tests. 

You might have a mammogram, which is an x-ray of the breast. For some women, it is not possible to do a mammogram because the breast is swollen and painful.

You might have a different type of scan, such as a breast ultrasound.

Some women have a CT scan or PET-CT scan.

Treatment for inflammatory breast cancer

The treatment for inflammatory breast cancer can be slightly different than for other types of breast cancer. 

You usually have chemotherapy as your first treatment. This is called neo adjuvant chemotherapy. It helps to control the cancer cells in the breast and reduces the swelling. It also aims to destroy any cancer cells that might have spread elsewhere in the body.

After chemotherapy you have surgery, unless there is a reason why this isn't suitable for you. You are most likely to have your whole breast removed (a mastectomy). Some women might be able to have a wide local excision but this uncommon. A wide local excision removes the area of cancer and a surrounding area of healthy tissue. But for most women, mastectomy is the best option.

After surgery you have radiotherapy to the remaining breast tissue. This is to help stop the cancer coming back. You have hormone therapy tablets for some years if your breast cancer has hormone receptors. Your doctor might recommend that you also have targeted cancer therapy, such as trastuzumab and pertuzumab, if your cancer has receptors for those drugs. 

The type of treatment you have also depends on your general health and whether you have any other medical conditions. Your 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. 

Survival for inflammatory breast cancer

Many factors can influence life expectancy 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 may 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. But doctors think that the outlook is improving as breast cancer treatment improves.

Follow up

After treatment you usually have regular check ups. At the check ups your doctor or a breast care nurse will examine you and ask about your general health. This is your chance to ask questions and to tell them if anything is worrying you.

How often you have check ups depends on your individual situation but they might go on for at least 5 years. This might include yearly mammograms. 

It’s important to remember that you can contact your doctor or nurse between appointments if you are worried about a symptom or have questions. You don't have to wait for your next appointment. You can also speak to your GP.

In some hospitals you don't have regular appointments after treatment. But if you have new symptoms or are worried about anything you can phone your doctor or breast care nurse or make an appointment to see them. 

UK guidelines say that everyone who has had treatment for early breast cancer should have a copy of a written care plan. The care plan has information about tests you will have, and signs and symptoms to look out for. It will also include contact details for specialist staff, such as your breast care nurse.

Trials and research

It is difficult to carry out clinical trials for rare types of breast cancer. This is because it is not usually possible to recruit enough people into a trial. If possible, researchers try to co-ordinate international trials so there are more people available and the results then have more value.

American researchers have set up the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Registry. The register is collecting blood and tissue samples from people with inflammatory breast cancer. They hope this will help them to understand this type of cancer better. Doctors are also trying to find out why this type of breast cancer can be more difficult to treat and how it is different to other breast cancers.

Research has already shown that most women should have chemotherapy before their surgery. Women whose cancers have particular receptors might also have treatment with targeted cancer drugs. Doctors are trying to improve on this treatment and look at whether adding other types of targeted cancer drugs could help.

International trials are also looking at ways to improve treatment for people with inflammatory breast cancer that has spread.

Last reviewed: 
13 Oct 2017
  • Early and locally advanced breast cancer: diagnosis and treatment
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2009 (updated March 2017)

  • Inflammatory breast cancer: the disease, the biology, the treatment
    FM Robertson and others
    A Cancer Journal for Clinicians 2010, volume 60, issue 6

  • Survival of women with inflammatory breast cancer: a large population-based study
    S Dawood and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2014, volume 25, issue 6

  • International expert panel on inflammatory breast cancer: consensus statement for standardized diagnosis and treatment.
    S Dawood and others
    Ann Oncol. 2011 Mar; 22(3): 515–523.

  • Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK

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