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What is Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

Inflammatory breast cancer is an uncommon form of rapidly advancing breast cancer that usually accounts for approximately 1% to 3% of all breast cancer diagnoses. Inflammatory breast cancer is a form of invasive breast cancer that progresses quickly and should be differentiated by physicians from other forms of advanced breast cancer with similar characteristics. Inflammatory breast cancer causes the breast to appear swollen and inflamed. This appearance is often caused when cancer cells block the lymphatic vessels in the skin of the breast, preventing the normal flow of lymph fluid and leading to reddened, swollen and infect-looking breast skin—hence the designation "inflammatory" breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer is not caused by infection or inflammation as was once believed.

With inflammatory breast cancer, the breast skin has a thick, pitted appearance that is classically described as peau d’orange (resembling an orange peel). Sometimes the skin develops ridges and small bumps that resemble hives.

The information below is from the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation Website. You will find links that will take you to the information on their site.

There is more than one kind of breast cancer.

We have been taught and are reminded frequently by public service announcements and by the medical community that when a woman discovers a lump on her breast she should go to the doctor immediately.

Inflammatory breast cancer usually grows in nests or sheets, rather than as a confined, solid tumor and therefore can be diffuse throughout the breast with no palpable mass. The cancer cells clog the lymphatic system just below the skin. Lymph node involvement is assumed.  Increased breast density compared to prior mammograms should be considered suspicious.

You Don't Have to Have a Lump to Have Breast Cancer.

Some women who have inflammatory breast cancer may remain undiagnosed for long periods, even while seeing their doctor to learn the cause of her symptoms.  The symptoms are similar to mastitis, a breast infection and some doctors, not recognizing IBC, will prescribe antibiotics. If a response to antibiotics is not apparent after a week, a biopsy should be performed or a referral to a breast specialist is warranted.

Age 52: Median age at time of diagnosis of IBC ... versus,
Age 62: Median age at time of diagnosis of Breast Cancer.

A surprising portion of young women with IBC had their first symptoms during pregnancy or lactation.  The misconception that these young women are at lower risk for breast cancer and the fact that IBC is the most aggressive form of breast cancer may result in metastases when the diagnosis is made.

One or more of the following are Typical Symptoms of IBC:

  • Swelling, usually sudden, sometimes a cup size in a few days

  • Itching

  • Pink, red, or dark colored area (called erythema) sometimes with texture similar to the skin of an orange (called peau d'orange)

  • Ridges and thickened areas of the skin

  • What appears to be a bruise that does not go away

  • Nipple retraction

  • Nipple discharge, may or may not be bloody

  • Breast is warm to the touch

  • Breast pain (from a constant ache to stabbing pains)

  • Change in color and texture of the aureole

These Symptoms May Be Present in Benign Breast Disorders. See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

Inflammatory Breast Cancer is typically abbreviated as IBC.  Non-inflammatory breast cancer may include in its diagnosis the terms "in situ breast cancer," "infiltrating breast cancer," or "invasive breast cancer" all of which may be abbreviated with "ibc," but those terms alone do not specify inflammatory breast cancer.  To add to the possible confusion, the diagnosis may include more that one kind of breast cancer; for example "inflammatory breast cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma, and mucinous carcinoma" all in the same breast.  So if a person you know has been described as having IBC or ibc, it may be well to ask what that is abbreviating, since it may not be "inflammatory breast cancer" and therefore the symptoms and other information presented here may not apply.

View pictures showing common presentation of some of these symptoms.
Read what patients write about their own symptoms prior to diagnosis.
View videos about IBC.


Is inflammatory breast cancer the same disease in each person diagnosed?

Researchers and clinicians don't know the answer to that question but hypothesize that there are "types," "sub-types," or "categories" of IBC.  Typically, the sub-types hypothesized are divided by presentation at time of diagnosis: 1) clinical symptoms only, with no pathological confirmation finding tumor emboli (tightly packed clumps of tumor cells, like a bunch of grapes but very tightly packed together) in the dermal lymphatics of the affected breast; 2) pathological only, finding tumor emboli in the dermal lymphatics, without presentation of clinical symptoms; and 3) clinical and pathological.

Another way to categorize IBC is by age and gender at time of diagnosis:

  1. There is documented evidence of two cases in girls as young as 12-years-old, one of whom had not begun menstruation.

  2. There are several documented cases of male IBC.

  3. There are cases diagnosed during pregnancy or lactation.

  4. And there are cases that don't fall into any of the first three categories, but are diagnosed in each of three menopausal periods of life: premenopausal, perimenopausal, and postmenopausal.

Beyond those categories, there are IBC cases that have special circumstances:

  1. 3 cases diagnosed in 10 months amongst 24 co-workers

  2. more than one case in the same family:  mother-daughter, sisters, and 1st degree cousins

  3. IBC diagnosed in a breast with an implant

  4. IBC diagnosed post-hysterectomy, in some cases including oophorectomy


Strange things doctors have told IBC patients about their symptoms prior to their diagnosis with IBC:

  1. The doctor said that if it was breast cancer he would be able to find a lump and not just  inflammation and swollen nodes, with a discharge and calcifications in the breast tissue due to caffeine (which she doesn't drink.)

  2. The doctor said she had spider bites when she developed skin metastasis following treatment for regular breast cancer.

  3. After her mammogram the radiologist told her to stop wearing under wire bras.
  4. She was told to change bras and detergent to get rid of the rash.
  5. My sister was told that her blue colored bruise was a fatty necrosis and no way was it cancer.
  6. At age 20 she was told the lump she felt was "rib cartilage" and not to worry as she was too young to have breast cancer. She wasn't properly diagnosed until 2 years and 3 exams later. She died of IBC at age 25.

  7. She was told she had regular breast cancer instead of IBC.  The doctor said he had seen plenty of IBC cases and she didn't have it.  (She did have IBC.  The clinical presentation of inflammatory breast cancer may vary from patient to patient.)

  8. She had inflammation with intense itching on one breast which appeared and disappeared 4 times. The first time it was diagnosed as spider bites.; the second time as an allergic reaction to food or detergent, and irritation from cyst fluid from fibrocystic breast the 3rd time.  The 4th time, she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer.

  9. Her IBC was first diagnosed as shingles.
  10. Finally, although this woman had not been diagnosed with IBC when she wrote this, it does not change the fact that her doctor's explanation of how IBC starts is erroneous.  She was told she didn't need a biopsy because IBC "starts with a lump which then disperses and she couldn't have IBC because the lump would have shown up on one of her previous mammograms."

If you have been diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, and would like to share something strange you were told about your symptoms by a doctor prior to your diagnosis, please write to us.  Your message will be treated confidentially.

Be your own best advocate to have symptoms diagnosed to know the cause.   Here is one example, written by a newly diagnosed IBC patient, who wishes to remain anonymous.

"I would like to thank you for this web site. This web site has helped me. I was having problems and the doctors was treating me for mastitis with medicine and it wasn't working. My ultra sound and mammogram said that it was mastitis. I told the surgeon he had to do a biopsy, because I thought that I had IBC. He said he thought I needed another week of medicine and I said no, get me scheduled for surgery next week. Two weeks later they told me that I have IBC. I found your information helpful. Thank you for giving the information to fight this. I am hoping and praying that I get to raise my 2 year old son. I have started the road to fight this and beat it."

"When I first experienced pain in my breast, I made an appointment with my internist and my OB/GYN.  I found comfort when after both examinations, both doctors separately told me:   "The good news is that cancer doesn't hurt".  I held on to those words for five months before the pain and breast became worse and I was diagnosed with IBC."

Another example:

"I am 53 yrs. old.  I was diagnosed with IBC in Jan. 2003.  I first noticed something wrong with my left arm.  It hurt and I couldn't raise it as high as usual.  I went to the Dr. at a clinic and they started by treating me for Mastitis.  They did this for almost a year.  I kept telling them something was very wrong.  Then my breast started to hurt on the left side.  I went to urgent care and the Dr. there said I had cancer and needed to see a surgeon.  By then my nipple was inverted.  I finally got to see a breast surgeon.  He had given me some needle biopsies.  They came back negative.  I told them something was still wrong.  They told me to put warm wash cloths on my nipple for 10 minutes twice a day.  That was the strange part.  Well that didn't help and finally on the 24th of Jan. I was given a biopsy during surgery and was told on Jan. 31st of 2004 I had cancer.  I had to be very persistent and almost aggressive to find out the truth.  Then I told them I wanted a second Dr. to tell me the same thing since it took them so long."

The words "signs" and "symptoms" have different medical meanings. Symptoms are those problems that a patient notices or feels. Signs are those things that a physician can objectively detect or measure. For instance, a patient will feel hot, this is a symptom. The physician will touch the patient's skin and note that it is warm and moist; this is a sign.


The Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the support of research and public awareness.  100% of all donations go directly to support the mission and goals of the Foundation.  The Foundation has no corporate sponsors and receives no grants; we rely solely on many small, tax-deductible voluntary donations to pursue our commitment to finding the causes of IBC.  Please call 1-877-stop-ibc (1-877-786-7422) toll free in the United States and Canada to leave a message to speak to one of our volunteers, or contact us by e-mail.

Disclaimer: Any communication from the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation (IBCRF) is intended for informational and educational purposes only and in no way should be taken to be the provision or practice of medical, nursing or professional healthcare advice or services. The information should not be considered complete or exhaustive and should not be used for diagnostic or treatment purposes without first consulting with your physician or other healthcare provider. IBCRF accepts no responsibility for the misuse of information contained within this website or within the email discussion messages. Any physician referral is provided as a courtesy only and does not imply endorsement or recommendation by IBCRF.

Copyright © 1999-2006 IBC Research Foundation.  All rights reserved.

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