Symptoms and causes

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include:

  • Rapid change in the appearance of one breast, over the course of several weeks
  • Thickness, heaviness or visible enlargement of one breast
  • Discoloration, giving the breast a red, purple, pink or bruised appearance
  • Unusual warmth of the affected breast
  • Dimpling or ridges on the skin of the affected breast, similar to an orange peel
  • Tenderness, pain or aching
  • Enlarged lymph nodes under the arm, above the collarbone or below the collarbone
  • Flattening or turning inward of the nipple

Inflammatory breast cancer doesn't commonly form a lump, as occurs with other forms of breast cancer.

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any signs or symptoms that worry you.

Other more common conditions have signs and symptoms resembling those of inflammatory breast cancer. A breast injury or breast infection (mastitis) may cause redness, swelling and pain.

Inflammatory breast cancer can be easily confused with a breast infection, which is much more common. It's reasonable and common to be initially treated with antibiotics for a week or more. If your symptoms respond to antibiotics, then additional testing isn't necessary. But if the redness does not improve, then your doctor may consider more serious causes of your symptoms, such as inflammatory breast cancer.

If you've been treated for a breast infection but your signs and symptoms persist, contact your doctor. Your doctor may recommend a mammogram or other test to evaluate your signs and symptoms. The only way to determine if your symptoms are caused by inflammatory breast cancer is to do a biopsy to remove a sample of tissue for testing.

Causes

It's not clear what causes inflammatory breast cancer.

Doctors know that inflammatory breast cancer begins with an abnormal cell in one of the breast's ducts. Mutations within the abnormal cell's DNA instruct it to grow and divide rapidly. The accumulating abnormal cells infiltrate and clog the lymphatic vessels in the skin of your breast. The blockage in the lymphatic vessels causes red, swollen and dimpled skin — a classic sign of inflammatory breast cancer.

Risk factors

Factors that increase the risk of inflammatory breast cancer include:

  • Being a woman. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer than are men — but men can develop inflammatory breast cancer, too.
  • Being black. Black women have a higher risk of inflammatory breast cancer than do white women.
  • Being obese. People who are obese have a greater risk of inflammatory breast cancer compared with those of normal weight.