What Women Need to Know About Inflammatory Breast Cancer

By Susan Dudley, PhD

National Center for Health Research

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type of breast cancer that is very fast-growing and aggressive. It makes up only one to five percent of all breast cancer patients—so infrequent that many breast care specialists have never met a patient who has it.

Inflammatory breast cancer does not typically form a lump inside the breast. Instead, the first symptoms are usually clearly visible on the breast, and they are often similar to the symptoms of relatively harmless insect bites, skin conditions, or breast infections that have no relation to cancer.

Be alert for:

  • changes in the size or profile of the breast that can include a) unusual swelling or enlargement, or b) “inversion” or flattening of the nipple
  • changes in the color of the skin on a third or more of the breast that may look like a rash or bruise and may be red or purple
  • changes in the texture of the skin such as thickening, development of “ridges” or of dimples or pits that look a bit like the texture of the skin of an orange
  • changes in how the skin feels such as persistent itchiness or being warm to the touch
  • swelling in the lymph glands that are under the arm or over the collar bone.

Compared to other types of breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer is more common in younger and African American women, as well as women who are obese. Like other types of breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer is occasionally diagnosed in men. These men tend to be older than women affected by inflammatory breast cancer.1

Even though the chances of having a rare disease like inflammatory breast cancer are extremely small, symptoms like these should never be ignored. A medical evaluation is necessary to rule out more common (and less serious) causes like simple breast infection, as well as other serious problems like Paget’s Disease of the breast (see “A New Kind of Breast Cancer?: Paget’s Disease“)

What to Do

If you have symptoms that persist for more than a few days, well-respected breast surgeon Dr. Susan Love recommends antibiotics and close watching for two weeks. If the problem is caused by a bacterial infection, the medication should result in noticeable improvement in 10-14 days. If the problem is caused by a viral infection, it won’t respond to the antibiotic so it will probably either a) get significantly worse or b) run its course and get much better in 10-14 days. Any of these outcomes is good news. On the other hand, if there is no change in the symptoms within 10 to 14 days with antibiotic treatment, you need to make an appointment with a breast specialist for a biopsy as soon as possible.

Diagnosis and Treatment

The changes that lead to a diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer usually occur over a period of only a few weeks. It is likely that it has already spread to other parts of the body before any symptoms appear.

Mammograms are not usually effective in detecting inflammatory breast cancer. Even though an MRI exam might provide earlier diagnosis, this is not a realistic option for women without symptoms. A biopsy is needed for an accurate diagnosis. In addition, a diagnosis is more likely if the redness covers at least a third of the breast.2

Treatment is similar to the treatment for other invasive breast cancers – including chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and hormonal therapy. The average survival for patients diagnosed with Stage III inflammatory breast cancer is a little less than five years and the average survival for patients diagnosed with Stage IV inflammatory breast cancer is just under 2 year.3 Survival rates are significantly worse for African Americans diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, possibly because they tend to be diagnosed later.4

How Worried Should Women Be?

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare disease, so the chances of your getting it are quite small. Awareness of what symptoms to look for and of how to go about having those symptoms evaluated is the most important defense against this and any disease.

Additional information about IBC can be found at:

This article was updated in 2016.

  1. Bertucci F, Ueno NT, Finetti P, et al. Gene expression profiles of inflammatory breast cancer: correlation with response to neoadjuvant chemotherapy and metastasis-free survival. Annals of Oncology 2014; 25(2):358-365.  
  2. National Cancer Institute. Inflammatory Breast Cancer. January 6, 2016. href=”http://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/ibc-fact-sheet”>http://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/ibc-fact-sheet  
  3. Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Database, National Cancer Institute, 2015.  
  4. Bertucci F, Ueno NT, Finetti P, et al. Gene expression profiles of inflammatory breast cancer: correlation with response to neoadjuvant chemotherapy and metastasis-free survival. Annals of Oncology 2014; 25(2):358-365.