Inflammatory Breast Cancer

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What are the signs and symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer?

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) causes a number of signs and symptoms, which most often occur together. These develop quickly and include:

  • Breast warmth
  • Redness involving more than one-third of the breast
  • Thickening (edema/swelling) of the skin of the breast
  • The breast may become harder
  • Pitting or ridging of the skin of the breast so that it may look like orange peel

Sometimes the nipple becomes inverted, as well. The skin may have the texture of orange peel. Most often, no mass (tumor) can be felt. The skin swelling can cause one breast to appear larger than the other. The breast feels warm to touch and can feel heavy compared to the other breast. The breast may also be tender and painful or itchy.

Tenderness, redness, warmth, and itching are also common symptoms of a breast infection or inflammation (such as mastitis). Because these conditions are much more common than IBC, a doctor might at first suspect infection as a cause and treat with antibiotics. This may be a good first step, but if the symptoms do not get better in 7 to 10 days, tests should be done to look for cancer.

Because IBC grows and spreads so quickly, the cancer may have already spread to nearby lymph nodes by the time the patient notices breast symptoms. This spread can cause lymph nodes under the arm or above the collar bone to become swollen. If the diagnosis is delayed, the cancer can become more advanced, and spread to lymph nodes in the chest or to distant sites.

If you have any of these symptoms, it does not mean that you have IBC, but you should see your doctor right away. If treatment with antibiotics is started you will need to let your doctor know if this treatment doesn't help, especially if your symptoms worsen or the area affected gets larger. Ask to see a specialist (like a breast surgeon) or get a second opinion if you are concerned.

Last Medical Review: 08/28/2014
Last Revised: 06/10/2015