woman suffering from armpit pain
woman suffering from armpit pain
woman suffering from armpit pain

Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Featured Expert:

Inflammatory breast cancer, also called IBC, is a rare but aggressive form of breast cancer. It is a breast cancer that affects the skin of the breast and is characterized by edema, or swelling, and redness of the breast. Because it presents with symptoms similar to that of a breast infection, IBC can be challenging to diagnose.

Inflammatory Breast Cancer: What You Need to Know

  • Inflammatory breast cancer is uncommon, accounting for .5% to 2% of all breast cancers.
  • IBC arises from untreated invasive carcinomas within the breast.
  • IBC is more common in:
    • Younger women (under age 40)
    • Black women
    • Women who are obese

IBC Symptoms

Inflammatory breast cancer causes visible changes in the skin of the breast. The skin might take on a pink hue or appear swollen and dimpled, with an “orange peel” appearance.

The signs of inflammation, such as redness, warmth, swelling or pain that can occur with a breast infection such as mastitis, also occur in inflammatory breast cancer. It is important to see your gynecologist or primary care physician right away if you have any of these changes in the breast.

If the inflammation does not improve after one week of treatment with antibiotics that your doctor prescribes, make an appointment with a breast specialist immediately.

How is inflammatory breast cancer diagnosed?

A diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer is confirmed by breast imaging, breast core biopsy and a skin punch biopsy. Breast biopsy and skin punch biopsy involves the doctor taking a small sample of breast tissue and breast skin, respectively. The samples go to a laboratory, where a pathologist (a doctor who studies body tissues for signs of disease) will examine the cells under a microscope.

If a patient has inflammatory breast cancer, the pathology report will typically indicate that breast cancer cells are present in the breast tissue and the lymph vessels of the skin.

O’Donnell acknowledges that waiting for test results, such as a biopsy, can be stressful.

“We know how quickly patients want results from a biopsy if there is a suspicion of breast cancer, so pathologic analysis proceeds very quickly. Most of our patients will receive the pathology report within 24 hours,” she says.

Other steps to work up an inflammatory breast cancer include:

What is the treatment for inflammatory breast cancer?

Because inflammatory breast cancer is an aggressive cancer, aggressive treatment provides the best chance of a good outcome.

“We treat inflammatory breast cancer with a multidisciplinary approach.” says O’Donnell. “Multimodality treatment includes all members of the breast team, including the medical oncologist, breast surgeon and radiation oncologist. The entire breast team is mobilized to care for you.”

Here are some therapies your doctor may include in your treatment plan:

  • Neoadjuvant chemotherapy. Treating you with chemotherapy as a first step can reduce the amount of disease in the breast and skin.
  • Surgery (mastectomy) can remove more of the cancer from your body.
  • Radiation treatments can address lingering cancer cells in the chest wall.
  • Hormonal therapy can treat some forms of inflammatory breast cancer.
  • Biologic targeted therapy such as trastuzumab, a monoclonal antibody, is useful in treating HER2-positive disease.

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