Inflammatory breast cancer

This is a rare type of breast cancer. This type of cancer tends to develop quicker than other more common types of breast cancer.  

What is inflammatory breast cancer?

In inflammatory breast cancer, the cancer cells often block the small lymph vessels in the breast. The lymph vessels (or lymph ducts) are part of the lymphatic system Open a glossary item. They collect waste products and drain them into the veins.  

When the lymph vessels are blocked, it causes the skin to become red and inflamed. 

Inflammatory breast cancer is rare. Less than 5 out of 100 breast cancers (less than 5%) diagnosed are inflammatory breast cancers.

Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer symptoms can appear quite suddenly. Symptoms include:

  • swelling and redness of the breast
  • pain
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • firm or hard breast that is hot to the touch
  • skin that looks like orange peel (peau d’orange)
  • changes to the nipple such as flattening or an inverted nipple
  • a lump in the breast

Inflammatory breast cancer is often confused with an infection of the breast (mastitis). Mastitis is common in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Your GP might give you a course of antibiotics if they think that your symptoms could be due to mastitis. But they will refer you to a specialist if they think you are unlikely to have mastitis or if your symptoms don’t clear up after antibiotics.

While inflammatory breast cancer can cause these particular symptoms, it’s important to know the general symptoms of breast cancer. See your GP if you notice any change in the look or feel of your breasts.

Diagnosing inflammatory breast cancer

Your GP should arrange for you to go to a breast clinic to have tests if you have symptoms that could be due to inflammatory breast cancer. This is usually a one stop clinic where you have several tests during one visit.

The tests you might have include:

  • breast examination
  • mammogram Open a glossary item 
  • breast ultrasound scan
  • taking a sample of tissue from the skin in the breast or a breast lump (biopsy)
  • MRI scan of the breast
  • other scans such as a CT scan or PET-CT scan

Your doctor may take photos of your breast to keep in your medical records. These can be helpful to see how well you respond to treatment.

Treatment for inflammatory breast cancer

The type of treatment you have depends on a number of factors. This includes:

  • whether your cancer cells have receptors for particular types of drugs
  •  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. 

Drug treatments before surgery

Drug treatment before surgery is called neo adjuvant treatment. You usually have chemotherapy. This helps to shrink the cancer. If your cancer cells have HER2 receptors Open a glossary item, you might also have targeted cancer drugs such as trastuzumab (Herceptin).


After chemotherapy with or without targeted cancer drugs, you usually have surgery. You are most likely to have your whole breast removed. This is a mastectomy. After a mastectomy, you may be able to have a breast reconstruction.

Your surgeon may also remove the lymph nodes under your armpit.


After surgery, you have radiotherapy. Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells. This helps to stop the cancer from coming back.

Hormone therapy

You have hormone therapy tablets for some years if your breast cancer has hormone receptors. The aim of hormone therapy is to lower the risk of the cancer coming back.

Survival for inflammatory breast cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer can develop quickly and may spread to other parts of the body. So in general, the outlook for this type of cancer is worse than for other types of breast cancer. But doctors think that the outlook is improving as breast cancer treatment improves.

At the time of diagnosis, inflammatory breast cancer is either stage 3 or stage 4. In most cases, the cancer has already spread to the lymph nodes and in some people, it has already spread to other parts of the body.

We have survival information for each stage of breast cancer in the UK.

Follow up

You have regular check ups after treatment for inflammatory breast cancer. How often you have check ups depends on your individual situation.

It’s important to remember that you can contact your doctor or specialist nurse if you notice a new symptom or have questions between your check ups. You can also speak to your GP.

Research and clinical trials

Researchers around the world are looking at better ways to diagnose and treat breast cancer. Ask your cancer specialist or breast specialist nurse about trials. There may be open trials at your local hospital that you can take part.

There are fewer trials specifically for inflammatory breast cancer than for more common types of breast cancer. This is because it is difficult to organise and run trials for rare cancers. For example, it can take a long time to recruit the number of people needed.

Coping with inflammatory breast cancer

Coping with breast cancer can be difficult. It can be even harder to cope with a rare type of breast cancer. There is help and support available to you and your family.

  • Early and locally advanced breast cancer: diagnosis and management
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2018. Last updated June 2023 

  • AJCC Cancer Staging Manual (8th edition)

    American Joint Committee on Cancer

    Springer, 2017

  • Inflammatory breast cancer: time to standardise diagnosis assessment and management, and for the joining of forces to facilitate effective research
    D Rea and others on behalf of the UK Inflammatory Breast Cancer Working Group
    British Journal of Cancer, 2015. Vol 112, pages 1613-1615

  • The presentation, management and outcome of inflammatory breast cancer in the UK: Data from a multi-centre retrospective review
    E Copson and others
    Breast, 2018. Vol 42, pages 133-141

  • Inflammatory breast cancer: clinical features and treatment
    UpToDate, Last updated 2022

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

Last reviewed: 
14 Jun 2023
Next review due: 
14 Jun 2026

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