While most types of breast cancer present as a firm, palpable lump, inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is different. This rare and aggressive cancer—which makes up only 1% to 5% of all breast cancer cases—causes a rash that can make breast skin to look:
- Shades of red, pink or purple
- Dimpled or pitted, similar to the texture and appearance of an orange peel
Inflammatory breast cancer can also cause the breast to feel heavy, tender or warm. A burning sensation, pain or itchiness may be present. Changes in skin typically cover at least one-third of the breast, although some rashes more closely resemble a small insect bite. An early inflammatory breast cancer rash may appear as a bruise that doesn’t go away or a subtle change in breast skin that progresses rapidly over the course of a few weeks.
Why does inflammatory breast cancer cause a rash?
In inflammatory breast cancer, “nests” of cancer cells invade and block the lymph vessels in breast skin. Lymph vessels collect and filter lymph, a clear fluid that contains white blood cells and flows throughout the body’s lymphatic system. This blockage of vessels can result in noticeable swelling, redness and inflammation of the affected breast—what we know as an inflammatory breast skin cancer rash.
Other symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer
In addition to a breast rash, other possible signs and symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include:
- A flattened, retracted or inverted nipple
- Swollen lymph nodes around the collarbone or under the arms
- A solid, hard lump in breast tissue (although this is uncommon)
Most inflammatory breast cancer symptoms develop relatively quickly over three to six weeks. If you notice any unusual changes in the size, appearance, or texture of your breasts, promptly speak with a general physician or obstetrician/gynecologist who can evaluate your symptoms and refer you to a cancer specialist, if necessary.
Inflammatory breast cancer vs. breast infection
It’s important to remember that inflammatory breast cancer is not the only cause of breast inflammation and increased tenderness. Mastitis, a noncancerous breast infection, is much more common than inflammatory breast cancer and can lead to many of the same symptoms, including:
- Breast pain
- Breast swelling and warmth
- Red or purple discoloration of breast skin
However, unlike inflammatory breast cancer, mastitis is also known to cause:
- Yellowish discharge from the nipple
- A tender, fluid-fill lump in breast tissue
Mastitis can affect any woman, but most often occurs in breastfeeding mothers. Breast tissue may become inflamed or infected as a result of clogged milk ducts or dry, cracked skin on a nipple. Common treatment approaches for mastitis include taking antibiotics or pain relievers, staying hydrated and regularly emptying the breast of milk. Mastitis should resolve quickly with treatment—if your symptoms don’t improve after a week of taking antibiotics, it’s important to let your physician know.
Other noncancerous conditions that can lead to a breast rash include:
- Paget’s disease of the breast
- Mammary duct ectasia
- Nipple dermatitis
- Breast abscesses
Who is at risk for inflammatory breast cancer?
Inflammatory breast cancer is rare but can occur in women and men of any age. It’s one of the few breast cancers that’s known to affect people younger than 40, although the average age at diagnosis is 52. Additionally:
- People who are overweight have an increased risk of inflammatory breast cancer.
- Black women appear to have a higher risk of inflammatory breast cancer than white women.
- There may be a genetic link to inflammatory breast cancer risk, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations that increase the likelihood of other breast cancers, although more research is needed.
How is inflammatory breast cancer diagnosed?
Mammograms aren’t a reliable way to screen for inflammatory breast cancer, as this malignancy rarely produces a distinct breast lump that can be detected through an imaging test. The diagnostic process typically begins with an evaluation of the breast rash and other possible symptoms, followed by a breast ultrasound or a skin punch biopsy to collect a small sample of tissue for testing under a microscope. A biopsy is the only definitive way to rule out or confirm a diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer.
Moffitt’s approach to inflammatory breast cancer
Moffitt Cancer Center’s Don & Erika Wallace Comprehensive Breast Program is home to multispecialty team that focuses exclusively on breast malignancies. As a high-volume cancer center, our experts have an unparalleled level of experience treating uncommon and complex diseases like inflammatory breast cancer. Moffitt also works diligently to discover breakthroughs in treatment through our trailblazing clinical trial program, which gives eligible patients access to promising new therapies before they’re made widely available.
We invite you to visit Moffitt—Florida’s No. 1 cancer hospital—if you’d like to have a breast rash evaluated by a specialist or receive a second or third opinion regarding inflammatory breast cancer treatment. No referrals are necessary to visit Moffitt, and you’ll be connected with a professional in less than 24 hours after you contact us. To get started, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online.
Healthline: Breast Rash
National Cancer Institute: Inflammatory Breast Cancer
American Cancer Society: Inflammatory Breast Cancer
National Breast Cancer Foundation: Inflammatory Breast Cancer