Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) represents 1 to 5 percent of all diagnosed breast cancers, and is far more aggressive and more difficult to diagnose than other breast cancers.
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 is often difficult, and may result in delaying timely treatment, which is essential to survival. IBC does not present with a lump but with a red rash 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 0 to 5 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 when diagnosed (locally advanced with cancer cells in 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. This is why 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 tender, firm and enlarged breast (sometimes overnight)
- A warm feeling in the breast (or may feel hot/warm to the touch)
- Persistent itching of the breast (not relieved with cream or salve)
- Shooting or stabbing pain
- Ridged or dimpled skin texture, similar to an orange peel
- Thickened areas of breast tissue
- Enlarged lymph nodes under the arm, and/or above or below the collarbone
- Flattening or retraction of the nipple
- Swollen or crusted skin on the nipple
- Change in color of the skin around the nipple
If one or more of these symptoms continue for more than a week, talk to a health-care provider. Because tenderness, redness, warmth and itching are more common than IBC, a health-care provider may first suspect infection to be the cause and treat with antibiotics. However, if the systems do not get better in seven to 10 days, further evaluation is needed. It is important that women become their own best advocate when it comes to ruling out inflammatory breast cancer.
More information about inflammatory breast cancer can be found by visiting www.eraseibc.com. For more information about Inflammatory Breast Cancer Awareness Month, contact Barbara Steiner, North Dakota Department of Health, at 701.328.2389.