Inflammatory Breast Cancer

This rare and aggressive form of breast cancer often appears as an irritated area of skin. It blocks the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast. Inflammatory breast cancer may not be seen in a mammogram or ultrasound, and is often misdiagnosed as an infection. By the time it’s diagnosed, it usually has grown into the skin of the breast. Often, it has already spread to other parts of the body, too.

What Are the Symptoms of Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

Unlike more common forms of breast cancer, this type generally doesn’t show up as a lump. The disease grows as nests or sheets under the skin.

Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer may include:

  • Pain in the breast
  • Skin changes in the breast area. You may find pink or reddened areas often with the texture and thickness of an orange.
  • A bruise on the breast that doesn't go away
  • Sudden swelling of the breast
  • Itching of the breast
  • Nipple changes or discharge
  • Swelling of the lymph nodes under the arm or in the neck

These changes often happen quickly, over a period of weeks.

How Is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Diagnosed?

If you have swelling or redness on your breast that doesn’t go away and doesn’t get better with antibiotics after a week, your doctor may suspect inflammatory breast cancer. An ultrasound and other imaging tests will give a more detailed look at your breast.

Your doctor may order one or more of the following:

Mammogram. This can show if the affected breast is denser or if the skin is thicker than the other breast.

MRI . It uses powerful magnets and radio waves to make pictures of the breast and structures inside your body.

CT scan. It's a powerful X-ray that makes detailed pictures inside your body.

PET scan . Used together with a CT scan, this test can help find cancer in lymph nodes and other areas of the body.

A biopsy can tell for sure if you have cancer. A doctor will remove a small section of breast tissue or skin to test it.


Often, the sample can be taken with a needle, but sometimes a cut is made to remove it. The type of biopsy you have may depend on whether a mass can be seen on imaging tests.

The medical team will use what’s collected in the biopsy to look for any abnormal cell growth, and also test for proteins associated with some cancers. If you’re diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, more tests can show how much of the breast and the area around it is affected.

How Is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Treated?

Because this form of cancer spreads quickly, you’ll need an aggressive treatment plan. It may include:

Chemotherapy. This drug treatment is given before surgery to shrink the tumor and make the cancer operable. It also lowers the chance the cancer will come back. You may have chemo for up to 6 months before surgery.

Surgery. A mastectomy may be performed after chemotherapy. This procedure removes all of your breast.

Targeted therapy. If the cancer cells have too much of a protein called HER2, you may be given drugs specifically for that.

Hormone therapy. Certain medications may be given if the cancer cells have hormone receptors. These medicines block the receptors so they can’t attach to the hormones.

Radiation . Often, radiation treatments are given after chemotherapy and surgery to lower the chance of the cancer coming back.

Talk to your doctor about clinical trials. Clinical trials test new drugs to see if they are safe and if they work. They’re often a way for people to try new medicine that isn't available to everyone. Your doctor can help find a trial that might be a good fit for you.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 17, 2017



National Cancer Institute: "Inflammatory Breast Cancer."

American Cancer Society: “Inflammatory Breast Cancer.”

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