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.
You can opt just to have the cancer cells removed and some of the surrounding tissue. This is called a wide local excision.
If your tumors have been found to express abnormal amounts of a protein called HER2, then it will be possible for you to have targeted drug therapy for your cancer. Medications that suppress the production of HER2 may be useful in treating the cancer.
If a biopsy has shown that the cancer contains the hormone estrogen, other medications can reduce the amount of estrogen in the body, or block receptors on the cells so that they don’t respond to it.
This may be offered after surgery. If you are having a breast reconstruction using your own tissues, radiotherapy will normally be done first. This will prevent damage to the tissue. If you are having breast implants put in, radiotherapy will usually be delayed until after this is completed.
In the case of very severe, terminal disease then there are specially trained nurses who can provide emotional support and care for you and your relatives and help you all through this difficult time.
What are the Chances of Survival?
Conventional medical doctors only class "survival" after cancer as still being alive for a minimum of five years after treatment.
Based on this method, 77 percent of women with stage 1 or 2 cancer were still alive two years after treatment. The prognosis is worse if the stage of cancer is more advanced.
For stage 3 cancer, 65 percent were still alive after 2 years, and 40 percent after five years.
For stage 4 cancer, only 11 percent survive for at least five years.(2)
Please bear in mind though, that these are only statistics and that chance of recovery is different for every woman.
Alternative or Complementary Treatment
There are also alternative and complementary therapies available to treat breast cancer. Some women use them in conjunction with conventional therapy, for instance, to reduce side effects from chemotherapy or to boost its effectiveness.
In a systematic review by Keith I. Block et al. 19 studies were reviewed by 3 universities to explore whether antioxidant supplementation alters the efﬁcacy of cancer chemotherapy. Use of supplementation with antioxidants during cancer treatment is quite common. Between 13-87 percent of cancer patients are estimated to take them.(4)
They found that glutathione, the body’s special super immune cell, has been found to be helpful in reducing chemotherapy side effects in six out of seven studies where it was given intravenously.
In a separate study, 58 percent of patients being given IV glutathione were able to have the recommended six cycles of chemotherapy, compared to 39 percent of the placebo group. This was because they suffered less toxicity.
In another study, patients taking glutathione had statistically significant reductions in neurotoxicity and in a study of 50 patients, only 17 percent of them experienced neurotoxicity compared with 89 percent of the placebo group.
The review concluded that antioxidant supplementation did not interfere with chemotherapy treatments and that 13 out of 19 reports on survival showed similar or better survival rates than those who did not take supplements.
1. Inflammatory Breast Cancer, Cancer Research UK. Web. 24 September 2012.
2. Inflammatory Breast Cancer, National Cancer Institute. Web. 24 September 2012.
3. Survival Rates for Breast Cancer, American Cancer Society. Web. 24 September 2012.
4. Impact of antioxidant supplementation on chemotherapeutic efficacy: A systematic review of the evidence from randomized controlled trials, Int J Cancer. 2008 Sep 15;123(6):1227-39. Full Text:
Reviewed September 26, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith