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Inflammatory Breast Cancer: Breaking Down the Basics

By Kiara Ford

Among the many different types of breast cancer, one of the least discussed and least understood is inflammatory breast cancer, or IBC. This is primarily because of its rarity; IBC only affects 1 to 5% of all breast cancer patients. For those affected, however, IBC can be difficult to diagnose, treat, and recover from. For all of these reasons, it is important to be aware of the symptoms and treatment options of this less common subtype of breast cancer. Continue reading to learn how inflammatory breast cancer is different from other breast cancer subtypes, as well as how IBC is diagnosed and treated.

What is inflammatory breast cancer?

Like the majority of breast cancers, inflammatory breast cancer is usually an invasive ductal carcinoma. This means the disease is the result of cancer cells developing from the cells that line the milk duct of the breast, and subsequently spreading to cells beyond the duct. That said, the symptoms and treatment of IBC are different from other types of breast cancer.

How is inflammatory breast cancer different from other subtypes of breast cancer?

The key difference in presentation of inflammatory breast cancer is the lack of a lump within the breast, and rapid onset of symptoms, including swelling and redness of the entire breast. This inflammation is caused by cancer cells obstructing the lymphatic vessels of the skin on the breast. This same inflammation is a sign that the cancer has spread into nearby tissue and potentially nearby lymph nodes. Because of this presentation within the skin, by the time IBC has developed enough to be noticed and diagnosed, it is considered locally advanced and at least stage III. This development often happens rapidly, in a matter of months or even weeks. In a third of IBC cases, at the time of diagnosis, the cancer has already metastasized to other parts of the body.

Who is at risk for inflammatory breast cancer?

Certain populations may be more at risk for inflammatory breast cancer than others. IBC is unlike other breast cancers in that it is more likely to develop in younger people; many are under the age of 40. It primarily affects women and people assigned female at birth, although all genders can develop IBC. One risk factor is being categorized as overweight or obese on the body mass index (BMI) scale, and recent studies suggest it is more common among people of color.

What are the signs and symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer?

Signs and symptoms of IBC are easy to mistake for breast infections, so it is important to recognize and discuss them with a doctor as soon as they emerge. They include, but are not limited to, swelling, discoloration, pain, and itching of the breast. Other skin changes that may occur within days are inverted nipples and thickness and pitting of the skin, which gives the appearance of an orange peel in texture. Swollen lymph nodes under the arm can also be a sign that IBC has spread beyond the breast. If any of these symptoms present, it is important to address them quickly and receive a diagnosis as quickly as possible.

How is inflammatory breast cancer diagnosed and treated?

Diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer typically consists of physical examination, imaging, and biopsy. Once an IBC diagnosis has been officially confirmed, the results of the biopsy can help determine the right course of treatment. People whose cancer cells have hormone receptors may benefit from hormone therapy drugs, whereas people whose cells contain an abundance of the HER2 protein may react better to medication which specifically targets HER2. Beyond targeted drugs, other treatment options may include chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation, depending on the nature of the cancer.

Due to how uncommon inflammatory breast cancer is, it can often be forgotten in conversations about breast cancer. This information must be communicated and understood in order to help people know what to look for and to seek medical consultation as soon as possible.

Learn More:

On the Podcast: Breast Cancer Conversations

A 23-Year Look at Inflammatory Breast Cancer with Ginny Mason (Part I)

What is the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Scoring Scale? Featuring

Ginny Mason (Part II)

About the Author:

Kiara Ford is a recent graduate of Emerson College, where she majored in communication studies and minored in health and society. She is currently a community health worker trainee with the non-profit organization Asian Women for Health. She is passionate about patient advocacy and health equity, and hopes to raise awareness and increase understanding of patients’ rights through her work.

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