Inflammatory Breast Cancer: How Is This Rare Form of Breast Cancer Different?

Any diagnosis of breast cancer is cause for concern, but inflammatory breast cancer, although rare, is particularly aggressive. Because its symptoms are atypical, it is difficult to diagnose.

It only accounts for 1 to 5 percent of breast cancer cases in the United States, but due to its aggressive nature, the mortality rate for inflammatory breast cancer is higher than other forms of breast cancer. Anyone with symptoms should seek medical help immediately.


Because inflammatory breast cancer patients do not generally have lumps that can be detected during physical examinations or mammograms, the disease is difficult to diagnose. Primary symptoms may include red, tender and swollen breasts, and this can be mistaken for a breast infection. Cancer cells may have obstructed lymph vessels within the skin, which causes the skin to have a pitted or ridged appearance.

Patients may also have swollen lymph nodes under their arms, enlarged breasts, a sensation of burning and possibly inverted nipples. After a physical examination, diagnosis includes a biopsy of the infected area and imaging tests such as mammograms, ultrasound, CT scan, PET scan and bone scan to determine the progress of the disease.


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Once it is diagnosed, inflammatory breast cancer is either Stage III, which means it has spread to nearby lymph nodes, or Stage IV, which means it has spread to other body parts. Typical treatment involves systemic chemotherapy to cause the tumor to shrink, chemotherapy and modified radical mastectomy. The surgery is usually followed by postoperative radiation therapy and possibly further chemotherapy.

Age, overall health and the extent of the disease before it is diagnosed are all significant factors in the final prognosis. Inflammatory breast cancer is often diagnosed in women of younger ages than other forms of breast cancer.

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