Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare form of breast cancer in which the cancer cells block the lymphatic vessels in the skin of the breast. It is often a type of invasive ductal carcinoma, meaning it has developed from cells that line the milk ducts of the breast and then spread beyond, but has its own classification due to its symptoms, prognosis, and treatment.

How Common is Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

Around 1-2% of breast cancers diagnosed each year will be inflammatory breast cancer.

What are the Symptoms of Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

IBC may not look or present like a ‘typical’ breast cancer. This type of breast cancer does not present as a lump but rather a redness or rash in appearance, as a result of the lymphatic vessels becoming blocked. The breast may become red and swollen, similar to an infection.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Breast swelling
  • Purple or red colour of the skin
  • Dimpling or thickening of the skin of the breast so it may look and/or feel like an orange peel
  • A retracted or inverted nipple
  • One breast feeling warmer and heavier than the other
  • Breast tenderness, pain, or itchiness
  • Swelling of the lymph nodes under the arm and near the collarbone

If you have any of these symptoms, it may not mean that you have IBC, but you should make an appointment with your GP or doctor.

How is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Diagnosed?

IBC often does not cause a lump and often forms in layers, and therefore may not appear on a mammogram or can be detected in a physical exam. This can make it harder to diagnose.

However, it is possible to see and feel the skin thickening that sometimes occurs with IBC. This can also be detected on a mammogram.

To diagnose IBC, a biopsy is needed. This is a small procedure where a doctor uses a needle to obtain a sample of suspicious breast tissue and sends it to a pathologist to examine it under a microscope. If this biopsy confirms IBC, further imaging tests, usually a mammogram or Breast MRI, may be required to determine how much of the breast tissue and lymph nodes are involved. A PET scan or CT scan and bone scan may also be ordered to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

How is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Treated?

Patients diagnosed with IBC will usually have a combination of treatments that can include chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy, targeted therapies, and hormonal therapies. Treatment for IBC will usually begin with chemotherapy to shrink the tumour, followed by surgery and radiation therapy. Breast surgery may be used to treat IBC if the cancer has responded to chemotherapy. This would usually involve a mastectomy and the removal of lymph nodes from the armpit.

IBCs are often hormone receptor negative, which means they cannot be treated with hormone therapies, such as tamoxifen, that interfere with the growth of cancer cells fueled by estrogen.

What are my chances of Survival (prognosis) if I am Diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

IBC is an aggressive form of breast cancer which progresses rapidly. At diagnosis, it is considered to be either at stage three or four of the disease, depending on whether cancer cells have spread only to nearby lymph nodes, or to other parts of the body. IBC cannot be classified at stage one or two of the disease, as IBC means the disease has spread to the skin of the breast.

Unfortunately, the prognosis for patients diagnosed with IBC is not as good as it is for other types of breast cancer. However, every diagnosis is different, and each prognosis will depend on many things such as your age, overall health, stage of disease, disease type and how your body will respond to treatment.

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