Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Topic Overview

What is inflammatory breast cancer?

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare, fast-growing type of breast cancer. It is often called IBC for short.

Unlike other breast cancers, this type of cancer may not cause a lump in the breast. So regular breast exams and mammograms often fail to catch it early. Because it grows so fast, it usually has spread by the time it is diagnosed.

What causes inflammatory breast cancer?

In this type of cancer, the cancer cells often do not form lumps in the breast. Instead, the cancer cells block the lymph vessels that normally keep lymph fluid moving in the breast.

When the normal flow of lymph fluid is blocked, it can make the breast look swollen and red and feel warm, as if it were infected. The swelling may cause lots of tiny dimples in the skin. Sometimes it causes a lump that grows quickly, but you can have inflammatory breast cancer without having a lump in your breast.

What are the symptoms?

Inflammatory breast cancer can cause one or more of these symptoms:

  • A breast that is swollen, red, and warm
  • A breast that is tender or painful
  • An area of itching in the breast
  • A recent change in the nipple. Sometimes the nipple pulls back into the breast instead of pointing outward. This is called a retracted nipple.
  • A change in the skin, especially an area that looks thick and pitted, like an orange peel. Sometimes there are ridges in the skin and small bumps that look like a rash or hives.
  • An area of the breast that looks bruised
  • Swollen lymph glands (lymph nodes) in the armpit
  • One or more lumps in the breast

How is inflammatory breast cancer diagnosed?

A biopsy is needed to diagnose this cancer. During a biopsy, the doctor takes a sample of the breast or the breast skin. The sample is looked at in a lab to see if it contains cancer cells.

It’s very important to diagnose inflammatory breast cancer quickly so that treatment can begin. But because it is rare and usually doesn't make a lump, doctors may not recognize the symptoms right away. The cancer is often mistaken for other problems, like spider bites, an allergic reaction, or mastitis, which is a breast infection that is usually treated with antibiotics.

Antibiotics do not help inflammatory breast cancer. If your doctor has given you antibiotics and your symptoms do not seem to be getting better after a week, call your doctor.

After a biopsy shows that you have this type of cancer, your doctor will order more tests—such as a mammogram, a bone scan, or a CAT scan—to see if the cancer has spread.

How is it treated?

It's very important to treat this cancer as soon as possible. And more than one type of treatment may be needed. Treatment starts with anticancer drugs, called chemotherapy. These drugs help shrink the cancer.

Some tests will be done to help find which medicines will work best for you. These tests look at cancer cells from your biopsy to find out what kind of cancer you have. These tests include:

  • Estrogen and progesterone receptor status. The hormones estrogen and progesterone stimulate the growth of normal breast cells, as well as some breast cancers. Hormone receptor status is an important piece of information that will help you and your doctor plan treatment.
  • HER-2 receptor status . HER-2/neu is a protein that regulates the growth of some breast cancer cells. About 25% of women with breast cancer have too much (overexpression) of this growth-promoting protein.

Drug treatment is usually followed by surgery to remove the breast and the lymph nodes. After surgery, radiation treatment is used to try to kill any remaining cancer cells.

More chemotherapy or hormone therapy may be used after radiation, especially if cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.

How do you cope with having inflammatory breast cancer?

Finding out that you have this cancer is scary, because it is a very serious disease. But there is reason for hope, because treatment is improving. These days, many women are still free of cancer, some even 15 years and longer.

Talk with your doctor about taking part in a clinical trial. Many women with IBC are good candidates for clinical trials, which study new treatments and better ways to use current treatments.

You may also want to talk with your doctor about whether you are a good candidate for genetic testing for breast cancer. This can help other members of your family to understand more about their risk of breast cancer.

Talking with others who have the disease can help. Because the disease is so rare, finding a support group can be hard. But thanks to the Internet, it’s possible to find women who are very willing to listen to you and share their own experiences through online support groups and chat rooms.

For more information about inflammatory breast cancer, see the following topics:

Breast Cancer – Health Professional Information [NCI PDQ]

Breast Cancer – Patient Information [NCI PDQ]

Other Places To Get Help


American Cancer Society (ACS)
Phone: 1-800-ACS-2345 (1-800-227-2345)
TDD: 1-866-228-4327 toll-free
Web Address:

The American Cancer Society (ACS) conducts educational programs and offers many services to people with cancer and to their families. Staff at the toll-free numbers have information about services and activities in local areas and can provide referrals to local ACS divisions.

Breast Cancer Network of Strength
212 West Van Buren Street
Suite 1000
Chicago, IL 60607-3903  
Phone: 1-800-221-2141 English, with interpreters in over 100 languages
1-800-986-9505 Spanish
Fax: (312) 294-8597
Web Address:

The Breast Cancer Network of Strength, formerly the Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization, has a mission to ensure—through information, empowerment, and peer support—that no one faces breast cancer alone. Their 24-hour hotline, known as YourShoes, is staffed entirely by trained breast cancer survivors.

This Web site offers other resources, such as News You Can Use, a monthly summary of some of the latest breast cancer research. Also, affiliates throughout the nation provide services such as support groups, breast health awareness workshops, wigs and breast prostheses for women with limited resources, and advocacy on breast cancer-related policies in their respective communities.

National Cancer Institute (NCI)
NCI Publications Office
6116 Executive Boulevard
Suite 3036A
Bethesda, MD  20892-8322
Phone: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday
TDD: 1-800-332-8615
Web Address: (or for live help online)

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is a U.S. government agency that provides up-to-date information about the prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer. NCI also offers supportive care to people with cancer and to their families. NCI information is also available to doctors, nurses, and other health professionals. NCI provides the latest information about clinical trials. The Cancer Information Service, a service of NCI, has trained staff members available to answer questions and send free publications. Spanish-speaking staff members are also available.

National Lymphedema Network (NLN)
Latham Square, 1611 Telegraph Avenue
Suite 1111
Oakland, CA 94612-2138  
Phone: 1-800-541-3259
Fax: (510) 208-3110
Web Address:

The National Lymphedema Network (NLN) provides education and guidance to people with lymphedema, health professionals, and the general public. The NLN provides information on the prevention and management of primary and secondary lymphedema and supports research to find causes and treatments for lymphedema.


Other Works Consulted

  • Burstein HJ, et al. (2008). Malignant tumors of the breast. In VT DeVita et al., eds., DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology, 8th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1606–1656. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Merajver SD, Sabel MS (2004). Inflammatory breast cancer. In JR Harris et al., eds., Diseases of the Breast, 3rd ed., pp. 971–982. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • National Cancer Institute (2006). Inflammatory breast cancer: Questions and answers. National Cancer Institute Fact Sheet. Available online:


Author Bets Davis, MFA
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Terrina Vail
Primary Medical Reviewer Joy Melnikow, MD, MPH - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Joseph O'Donnell, MD - Hematology/Oncology
Last Updated April 23, 2009

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