What Is Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

Symptoms, diagnosis, treatment options at Scripps

Inflammatory breast cancer patient holds hand of supporter who is wearing a cancer ribbon.

Symptoms, diagnosis, treatment options at Scripps

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare but aggressive form of breast cancer. It can develop quickly and spread to other parts of the body.

While IBC accounts for 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancers in the United States, its rapid progression makes early detection and treatment crucial.

The Inflammatory Breast Cancer Clinic at Scripps is just one of a handful in the nation dedicated to diagnosing, treating and monitoring IBC patients.

“IBC differs greatly from other forms of breast cancer in a number of ways, so it requires a dedicated approach that focuses on a unique set of challenges,” says Thomas Buchholz, MD, medical director at Scripps Cancer Center and a radiation oncologist at Scripps Clinic.

“IBC is often hard to diagnose, and it can spread fast, so it’s critical that patients receive prompt treatment from experienced specialists working together as an integrated team,” he says.

Understanding inflammatory breast cancer

Several features make IBC unique compared to other types of breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute:

  • Often, no lump can be felt during a physical exam or seen in a screening mammogram.
  • It’s usually diagnosed at a younger age.
  • It's more common in obese women than in women of normal weight.
  • Tumors are often “hormone receptor negative,” meaning they don’t respond to hormone therapies like tamoxifen.
  • It’s so aggressive, it may develop and spread between annual screening mammograms.

Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer

IBC symptoms develop quickly, usually within three to six months, according to the American Cancer Society.

IBC causes redness and swelling of the skin of the breast due to the inflammatory breast cancer cells invading and obstructing the lymphatic channels in the skin of the breast.

Other signs of IBC include:

  • Breast swelling that appears suddenly with one breast much larger than the other
  • Itching of the breast (other cancers cause itching too)
  • Pink, red, or dark colored area on the breast, sometimes with a dimpling of the breast skin that looks like an orange peel (called peau d’orange)
  • Ridges and thickened areas of the skin on the breast
  • Breast that feels warm to the touch
  • Flattened or retracted nipple
  • Breast pain or tenderness

Patients with IBC often have a delayed diagnosis of the disease. IBC symptoms may appear as signs of other conditions, such as infection, injury or another type of cancer.

Due in part to delayed diagnosis, survival rates for IBC patients are generally lower compared to other breast cancers. Treatments improve over time, however.

Also, many factors can influence a prognosis, including:

  • Type and location of the cancer
  • Stage of the disease
  • Patient’s age and overall general health
  • How the patient responds to treatment

IBC diagnosis and treatment

IBC is diagnosed by a biopsy. IBC that has not spread outside the breast or to nearby lymph nodes is considered stage 3 and IBC that has spread to other parts of the body is considered stage 4. Most cases are diagnosed at either stage 3 or 4.

IBC is generally treated with chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy. Participation in a clinical trial of new treatments is also an option.

Because IBC is often hard to diagnose and can spread fast, it’s critical that patients receive prompt treatment from experienced specialists.

“IBC has unique biologic behaviors and patterns of spread, so our plan of attack requires very specific treatment algorithms, which have been shown to achieve successful outcomes.”

“At Scripps IBC clinic, experts in medical oncology, radiation, surgery, pathology and radiation form a multidisciplinary team, says Dr. Buchholz. “Working together they provide the patient with a diagnosis and personalized treatment plan.”

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