Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer that occurs when cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), it accounts for only 1 to 5 percent of all cases of breast cancer.
IBC is different from other forms of breast cancer because it often doesn’t cause a lump or mass.
This can mean that it might not show up on common breast cancer screening techniques like mammograms, making it more difficult to diagnose.
Because IBC is an aggressive type of cancer that can grow and spread quickly, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs of inflammatory breast cancer and speak with a doctor immediately if you notice changes in your breast.
Signs and symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer
IBC can progress rapidly within weeks or months. Because of this, receiving an early diagnosis is extremely important.
While you usually don’t develop a lump that’s characteristic of other breast cancers, you may have several of the following symptoms.
An early sign of IBC is discoloration of the breast, with a section of the breast appearing red, pink, or purple in color.
Discoloration can impact a third or more of the breast, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The discoloration can look like a bruise, so you might shrug it off as nothing serious. But breast redness is a classic symptom of IBC. Don’t ignore unexplained bruising on your breast.
Due to the inflammatory nature of this particular cancer, your breast may look and feel different.
For example, inflammation can cause your breast to feel warm to the touch. You may also have breast tenderness and pain.
Lying on your stomach may be uncomfortable. Depending on the severity of tenderness, wearing a bra may also be painful.
In addition to pain and tenderness, IBC can cause persistent itching in the breast, especially around the nipple.
Another telltale sign of IBC is skin dimpling, or pitted skin. Dimpling — which can make the skin resemble the skin of an orange peel — is a concerning sign.
Change in nipple appearance
A change in the shape of the nipple is another possible early sign of IBC. Your nipple may become flat or retract inside the breast.
A pinch test can help determine if your nipples are flat or inverted. Place your thumb and index finger around your areola and gently squeeze.
A normal nipple moves forward after pinching. A flat nipple doesn’t move forward or backward. A pinch causes an inverted nipple to retract into the breast.
Having flat or inverted nipples doesn’t necessarily mean you have IBC. These types of nipples are normal for some women and are no cause for concern.
On the other hand, if your nipples change, speak with the doctor immediately.
Enlarged lymph nodes
IBC can cause enlarged lymph nodes. If you notice enlarged lymph nodes under your arm or above your collarbone, consult your doctor quickly.
Sudden change in breast size
IBC can change the appearance of the breasts. This change can occur suddenly. Because this cancer can cause inflammation and swelling, breast enlargement or thickness can occur.
The affected breast may appear noticeably larger than the other breast or feel heavy and hard.
If you’ve always had symmetrical breasts and you notice a sudden increase or decrease in the size of one breast, speak with your doctor to rule out IBC.
Stages of inflammatory breast cancer
You may be familiar with the fact that there are different stages of breast cancer. These stages are used to reflect how far the cancer has progressed.
At the time of diagnosis, all cases of IBC are either at stage 3 or stage 4:
- Stage 3. In stage 3 IBC, the cancer has spread to some of the tissues surrounding the breast. This can include nearby lymph nodes, the skin of the breast, and the tissues of the chest wall.
- Stage 4. In stage 4 IBC, the cancer has spread to more distant areas of the body, such as the lungs, liver, or bones. This is called metastasis. According to the ACS, it’s estimated that IBC has metastasized in about 1 in 3 diagnoses.
Survival rates of inflammatory breast cancer
Survival rates are used to give a general idea of the outlook for a specific type of cancer. A 5-year survival rate is typically used, which is the percentage of people with a certain type of cancer that are still alive 5 years after receiving their diagnosis.
The 5-year survival rates are reported based off of how far the cancer has spread. For IBC they are:
- Regional (Stage 3): 56 percent
- Distant (Stage 4): 19 percent
- Overall: 41 percent
When looking at 5-year survival rates, it’s important to remember that they’re based off of a large number of people that have had IBC.
Because of this, they can’t predict what will happen in each individual situation.