Catching an Evasive Killer: Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Dr. Kelly Dempsey
Breast Cancer Surgeon
Affiliated with
Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital

Often mistaken by women as a rash or skin infection, Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC)  is one of the most aggressive and deadliest forms of breast cancer. Although IBC is rare, accounting for only one percent to five percent of all new breast cancer cases in the United States, it can be one of the most difficult to diagnose.

Unlike other breast cancers, there is no lump found in IBC cases. There are several symptoms that are unique to IBC that cause many people to second guess their symptoms and delay seeing a doctor.

In cases of IBC, your skin may look like it has a rash that doesn’t itch. Sometimes, it may be considered an infection without pain. Even though your breast is hard and firm to the touch, you may not feel any pain.

And since it involves the skin, IBC starts as a Stage IIIB cancer. It is often diagnosed at either a Stage III or IV because the disease can progress rapidly in just a matter of weeks or months.

According to the National Cancer Institute, IBC typically is diagnosed in younger women. It also tends to be more common among African-American women and obese women. IBC can also strike men.

IBC is most recognizable by changes in the appearance of your breast. These changes are caused by cancer cells that invade and block the lymphatic vessels. Contact your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms:

  • Thickening or swelling of the skin of the breast
  • Redness visible on the entire breast area
  • Skin of the breast has pitting or dimpling, and looks and feels like an orange peel
  • A retracted or inverted nipple
  • One breast looks larger than the other because of swelling
  • One breast feels warmer and heavier than the other

Unlike other types of breast cancer, in cases of IBC a lump cannot be felt during a physical exam or seen in a mammogram. But IBC is visible to the eye. It’s good to be mindful of any changes in your breast area because the sooner you are able to get a diagnosis, the better your chance of beating it.

Due to the aggressive nature of the disease, IBC tumors in some cases are unable to be treated with hormone therapies. Instead, a multidisciplinary approach is used to treat patients diagnosed with the disease. Patients receive chemotherapy to help shrink and kill the cancer cells before having surgery to have the cancer removed. Surgery is usually followed by radiation therapy.

We know that IBC is a very aggressive cancer. Even with treatment, it can spread rapidly. Research has found that IBC patients who receive multiple forms of treatment may live longer.

Many factors come into play in terms of how the patient responds to treatment. A patient’s overall general health, stage of the disease and location of the cancer all play a role. That’s why I encourage all women and men to seek the opinion of a specialist if they experience any symptoms of IBC or notice any changes in the breast area.

Although IBC is extremely rare, one in eight women in their lifetime will be diagnosed with some form of breast cancer. The earlier you start treatment, the better your chance of a cure. Practice your monthly self-exams and schedule your annual mammogram.