Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type of breast cancer that only amounts to 1-4 cases of breast cancer out of every 100. (1) Cancer cells block tiny lymph channels in the breast.
These lymph nodes drain tissue fluid but because they have been blocked by the cancer, they cannot do their job.
Fluid becomes retained and this leads to inflammation in breast tissues. The breast itself may also be swollen. This is why this type of cancer is called inflammatory breast cancer.
It is more aggressive than other types of breast cancer and can spread within a matter of weeks or months. It affects women who are typically younger than other women with a breast cancer diagnosis. The average age at onset is 57 years, compared with 62 years for other types of breast cancer.
Inflammatory breast cancer is sometimes misdiagnosed as mastitis, an infection of the breast, because the presentation is very similar and your doctor may prescribe antibiotics first to see if this resolves your symptoms.
What are the Symptoms?
Symptoms may include:
• Swollen breasts
• Breasts that are hard or hot to the touch
• Changes to the skin such as pitting or thickening
• Discharge coming from the nipple
• Inverted nipples (if they aren’t normally inverted)
• A lump that can be felt on physical examination
If your breasts are swollen and painful, your doctor normally won’t do a mammogram, as this would cause too much pain. There are however alternative diagnostic tests.
Unlike other cancers, usually neoadjuvant chemotherapy is offered first, before any surgery is attempted. The aim of this is to stop the cancer spreading to other areas because this is a fast acting cancer. Speedy treatment can also reduce swelling in the breast.
This will be done over four to six months unless the disease continues to progress. In that case, your oncologist may suggest operating promptly to remove the cancer cells.
The most common type of surgery for this type of cancer is total mastectomy (removal of the breasts) but there are other options if you don’t want to do this.