Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type of breast cancer that develops rapidly, making the affected breast red, swollen and tender.
Inflammatory breast cancer occurs when cancer cells block the lymphatic vessels in skin covering the breast, causing the characteristic red, swollen appearance of the breast.
Inflammatory breast cancer is considered a locally advanced cancer — meaning it has spread from its point of origin to nearby tissue and possibly to nearby lymph nodes.
Inflammatory breast cancer can easily be confused with a breast infection, which is a much more common cause of breast redness and swelling. Seek medical attention promptly if you notice skin changes on your breast.
Inflammatory breast cancer doesn't commonly form a lump, as occurs with other forms of breast cancer. Instead, 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
For inflammatory breast cancer to be diagnosed, these symptoms must have been present for less than six months.
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, additional testing isn't necessary. But if the redness does not improve, 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 whether your symptoms are caused by inflammatory breast cancer is to do a biopsy to remove a sample of tissue for testing.
It's not clear what causes inflammatory breast cancer.
Doctors know that inflammatory breast cancer begins when a breast cell develops changes in its DNA. Most often the cell is located in one of the tubes (ducts) that carry breast milk to the nipple. But the cancer can also begin with a cell in the glandular tissue (lobules) where breast milk is produced.
A cell's DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do. The changes to the DNA tell the breast cell to grow and divide rapidly. The accumulating abnormal cells infiltrate and clog the lymphatic vessels in the skin of the breast. The blockage in the lymphatic vessels causes red, swollen and dimpled skin — a classic sign of inflammatory breast cancer.
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 younger. Inflammatory breast cancer is more frequently diagnosed in people in their 40s and 50s.
- 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.