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Inflammatory Breast Cancer - Topic Overview

What is inflammatory breast cancer?

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare, fast-growing type of breast cancer. It is often called IBC for short.

Unlike other breast cancers, this type of cancer may not cause a lump in the breast. So regular breast exams and mammograms often fail to catch it early. Because it grows so fast, it usually has spread by the time it is diagnosed.

Did You Know?

Under the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans will provide free women’s preventive services, including mammograms, birth control and well-woman visits. Learn more.

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What causes inflammatory breast cancer?

In this type of cancer, the cancer cells often do not form lumps in the breast. Instead, the cancer cells block the lymph vessels that normally keep lymph fluid moving in the breast.

When the normal flow of lymph fluid is blocked, it can make the breast look swollen and red and feel warm, as if it were infected camera.gif. The swelling may cause lots of tiny dimples in the skin. Sometimes it causes a lump that grows quickly, but you can have inflammatory breast cancer without having a lump in your breast.

What are the symptoms?

Inflammatory breast cancer can cause one or more of these symptoms:

  • A breast that is swollen, red, and warm
  • A breast that is tender or painful
  • An area of itching in the breast
  • A recent change in the nipple. Sometimes the nipple pulls back into the breast instead of pointing outward. This is called a retracted nipple.
  • A change in the skin, especially an area that looks thick and pitted, like an orange peel. Sometimes there are ridges in the skin and small bumps that look like a rash or hives.
  • An area of the breast that looks bruised
  • Swollen lymph glands (lymph nodes) in the armpit
  • One or more lumps in the breast

How is inflammatory breast cancer diagnosed?

A biopsy is needed to diagnose this cancer. During a biopsy, the doctor takes a sample of the breast or the breast skin. The sample is looked at in a lab to see if it contains cancer cells.

It's very important to diagnose inflammatory breast cancer quickly so that treatment can begin. But because it is rare and usually doesn't make a lump, doctors may not recognize the symptoms right away. The cancer is often mistaken for other problems, like spider bites, an allergic reaction, or mastitis, which is a breast infection that is usually treated with antibiotics.

Antibiotics do not help inflammatory breast cancer. If your doctor has given you antibiotics and your symptoms do not seem to be getting better after a week, call your doctor.

After a biopsy shows that you have this type of cancer, your doctor will order more tests—such as a mammogram, a bone scan, or a CAT scan—to see if the cancer has spread.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: April 24, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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