Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare, invasive type of cancer that accounts for about 1 to 5% of diagnosed breast cancers in the United States. Most cases are invasive ductal carcinomas, meaning that they originate in the milk duct cells and spread to the lymphatic vessels in the skin of the breast. A noticeable lump is rarely present, which can make inflammatory breast cancer hard to detect in its early stages.
What are the symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer?
Inflammatory breast cancer differs from other types of breast cancer in several ways, its symptoms included. Rather than presenting as a noticeable lump or mass, inflammatory breast cancer may cause:
- Skin on one breast to become thickened or pitted, similar to the texture of an orange peel, due to cancer cells blocking lymph vessels in the skin
- Swollen or reddened skin that covers more than one-third of the breast
- One breast that feels warmer or heavier or appears larger than the other due to swelling
- An inverted, flattened or retracted nipple
- Unusual breast tenderness, pain, discoloration or itchiness
- Swollen lymph nodes around the collarbone or underarm area
The symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer may progress rapidly and resemble breast infections such as mastitis. A woman who is receiving treatment for a breast infection should promptly speak with her physician if symptoms do not improve in seven to 10 days. As is the case with most other cancers, an early diagnosis is key to successfully treating inflammatory breast cancer and experiencing a better quality of life.
Who gets inflammatory breast cancer?
People of various ages—including men—can develop inflammatory breast cancer, although it typically affects women in their 40s and 50s. The exact cause of inflammatory breast cancer is not fully understood by the medical community. However, researchers have identified several risk factors that can increase the likelihood of developing this type of breast cancer.
Established risk factors for inflammatory breast cancer include:
- Race. For reasons unknown, African American women have a higher incidence of inflammatory breast cancer than women of other races.
- Weight. Inflammatory breast cancer is more common in women who are overweight or obese than women who have a healthy body weight.
- Genetics. There is still much to learn about the role of genetics in cancer growth, but having the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation may increase the risk of developing inflammatory breast cancer.
It’s important to remember that inflammatory breast cancer is an uncommon disease. Having one or more of these risk factors does not mean a diagnosis is inevitable, and some people develop inflammatory breast cancer without any known risk factors.
How is inflammatory breast cancer treated?
Inflammatory breast cancer is an aggressive malignancy that requires a diverse treatment approach. Each patient’s ideal course of care will vary according to the stage of cancer at the time of diagnosis, but many treatment plans include a combination of:
- Chemotherapy to deliver cancer-fighting drugs into the bloodstream
- Surgery to remove one or both breasts, sometimes along with surrounding lymph nodes (because inflammatory breast cancer is aggressive, breast-preserving procedures like lumpectomies are usually not possible)
- Radiation therapy, often following surgery to destroy remaining cancer cells or to help manage cancer-related discomfort if surgery is not an option
- Hormone therapy to prevent the body from activating or producing progesterone and estrogen—hormones that can signal cancer cells to divide and grow
- Targeted therapy with drugs that attack HER2 proteins, if the cancer is HER2-positive
Supportive care services that focus on reducing cancer symptoms and improving quality of life are also key components of an inflammatory breast cancer treatment plan.
Our approach to inflammatory breast cancer treatment
The Don & Erika Wallace Comprehensive Breast Program at Moffitt Cancer Center features a multispecialty team trained specifically in the evaluation and treatment of all types of breast cancer. At Moffitt, inflammatory breast cancer patients have access to medical oncologists, radiologists, fellowship-trained surgeons, radiation oncologists, plastic surgeons, experienced nurses, social workers and many other healthcare professionals in a single location.
Our comprehensive, patient-centered approach to cancer treatment sets Moffitt apart in many ways:
- Our multispecialty team provides patients with a complete range of health care services for all types of breast cancer in one place, including everything from screening and diagnostic tests to the latest options in progressive treatments.
- Our patients and their families have access to an extensive range of supportive care, including family advising, massage therapy, yoga and nutrition counseling and social services.
- Because our team of specialists works closely together to discuss and evaluate complex cases at regular tumor board reviews, treatments and treatment schedules are individualized and more precise, improving survival rates and cosmetic outcomes and reducing the need for secondary surgeries or treatments.
- Moffitt provides long-term care and support to our patients for life through our various wellness and support programs.
In addition, Moffitt Cancer Center is a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center — the only one based in Florida — and we are widely known for our trailblazing research initiatives. Our clinicians and researchers work together closely, always looking for new therapy options to implement in clinical trials for the treatment of breast cancers. Through efforts such as these, Moffitt continues to improve cancer survival rates and provide patients with a higher quality of life.