The American Cancer Society estimates that 276,480 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2020. Among these, one percent to five percent will be diagnosed with a far more aggressive form, inflammatory breast cancer (IBC).

IBC is a relatively rare and very aggressive disease in which cancer cells block lymph vessels in the skin of the breast. This type of cancer is called “inflammatory” because the breast often looks swollen and red or “inflamed”. Because the symptoms of IBC are so different from other forms of breast cancer, accurate diagnosis and timely treatment, essential to survival, are often delayed. IBC does not present with a lump but with redness and swelling that often is mistaken for mastitis or other skin conditions. IBC usually grows in ‘nests’ or ‘sheets’ rather than a tumor that causes a lump. Some women also experience thickening of the skin, pain and itching. As the cancer grows, it can result in dimpling of the skin, a condition called ‘peau d’orange.’

With the introduction of systemic chemotherapy, the five-year overall survival rate with a diagnosis of IBC has improved from zero percent to five percent in the 1990s to a current five-year survival rate of 40 percent. With the advancements in targeted therapy, many women with IBC are now living longer with a better quality of life.

Because IBC tends to be more aggressive (it grows and spreads much more quickly) than other types of breast cancer, it is at least stage IIIB (locally advanced) when it is diagnosed. This is because the breast cancer cells have grown into the skin.  Unfortunately, it is often diagnosed at stage IV (metastatic) because it has already spread to distant parts of the body.

The advanced stage of IBC, along with the tendency to grow and spread quickly, makes it more difficult to treat successfully than other types of breast cancer. Therefore, it is very important for women to recognize the signs and symptoms of the disease.

Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include:

•A breast that appears discolored (red, purple, pink or bruised)

•A warm feeling in the breast (or may feel hot/warm to the touch)

•Persistent itching of the breast

•Tenderness, pain or aching

•Ridged or dimpled skin texture, similar to an orange peel.

•Thickened areas, heaviness or visible enlargement of the breast

•Enlarged lymph nodes under the arm, and/or above or below the collarbone

•Flattening or retraction of the nipple

If one or more of these symptoms continue for more than a week, talk to a health care provider. Because tenderness, redness and warmth are more common than IBC, a health care may first suspect infection to be the cause and treat with antibiotics.  However, if the symptoms do not get getter in seven to ten days, further evaluation is needed.

Because inflammatory breast cancer is a rare but very aggressive form of breast cancer, it is important to know the symptoms and talk to your health care provider. You know your body best and women need to become their own best advocate when it comes to ruling out inflammatory breast cancer.

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