Inflammatory Breast Cancer Symptoms

Redness, swelling, tenderness, and changes to the skin of the breast can be signs of inflammatory breast cancer.

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare, aggressive form of breast cancer that tends to develop quickly, sometimes in just a few weeks or months, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). IBC starts in the milk ducts of the breast and rapidly spreads to the skin. It accounts for about 1–5% of all breast cancer cases, per the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Because IBC has spread to the breast skin, the signs are more surface-level. While most non-inflammatory breast cancer cases come with breast lumps, only about a quarter of IBC cases present with lumps, according to an April 2021 paper published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

IBC symptoms can mimic many other non-cancerous conditions, such as injuries or infections, per the NCI. They develop fast—symptoms need to be present for less than six months for an IBC diagnosis. Only one breast is typically affected.

Because IBC spreads fast, early diagnosis is crucial, according to the ACS. If you experience any of the following symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider ASAP.

inflammatory-breast-cancer
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Redness

Redness (erythema) in IBC progresses fast to cover at least a third of the breast, per the NCI. The skin may appear pink, reddish-purple, or bruised.

About 62% of people with IBC may get this symptom, according to a September 2018 study published in the journal PLOS One. It's the main type of breast change for white and Hispanic people with IBC.

Redness is also a symptom of many other non-cancerous breast conditions. An infection called mastitis (a common issue for people who are breastfeeding) can cause erythema along with lumpiness, warmth, and tenderness, according to the NCI. Fat necrosis (a condition that comes with painless lumps) can lead to red, bruised, or dimpled skin.

Swelling

Like redness, swelling (edema) of the skin in IBC spreads quickly to at least one-third of the breast, per the NCI. One of the breasts may appear larger or fuller than the other, according to the ACS.

About 48% of people with IBC may experience swelling of the skin or fullness. It's the main type of breast change in Black people with IBC, per the September 2018 study.

Breast swelling can occur naturally around your period, per the NCI. It can also happen because of an injury, infection, or breast implant surgery complication, per the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

People with IBC may experience swollen lymph nodes under the arm, near the collarbone, or in both locations, per the NCI. Lymph nodes are locations in the immune system where the body fights infection, according to the National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus resource.

Skin Like an Orange Peel

Peau d'orange, or skin that looks and feels like an orange peel, is the most recognizable symptom of IBC. It involves dimpling and thickening of the breast skin, per the ACS. About 46% of people with IBC may experience dimpling or discoloration, per the September 2018 study.

This and other breast skin appearance changes occur because IBC cells block lymph vessels in the skin, causing lymphatic fluid (lymph) to accumulate, per the NCI. The lymph vessels normally carry the lymph, part of the immune system, throughout the body to clear infection, per MedlinePlus.

Peau d'orange may be a symptom of other breast conditions, such as fibrocystic breast disease (FBD)—the most common non-cancerous breast disease, according to StatPearls. FBD also comes with pain and nipple discharge. It may affect anywhere between 30–60% of women, most commonly between the ages of 30–50.

Inverted Nipple

A nipple may retract (start to point inward) in about 16% of IBC cases, per the September 2018 study. It may also become flat.

About 10–20% of all people experience inverted nipples, per StatPearls. Many are born with this condition, and some can develop it with breast sagging and sudden weight loss. Nipples may also retract after breast surgery or because of an infection such as mastitis.

Warmth, Pain, and Tenderness

You may feel pain, burning, tenderness, or abnormal warmth in the breast affected by IBC, per the NCI. That breast may also feel itchy or heavy, per the ACS. These signs are also common in breast infections such as mastitis or cellulitis.

Healthcare providers may confuse IBC with an infection and try to treat it with antibiotics, according to an August 2018 paper published in the journal Surgical Clinics of North America. This can result in a delayed diagnosis. If your symptoms don't get better within 7–10 days of antibiotic treatment, follow up with a healthcare provider for more tests, the ACS recommends.

Providers can also misdiagnose IBC as a breastfeeding-related change, allergic reaction, insect bite, or cyst (a non-cancerous lump filled with fluid), per the September 2018 paper. If your symptoms don't go away with prescribed treatment, make sure to follow up with your provider.

An IBC diagnosis can be difficult to process, but know that treatments are advancing, per the ACS. There are already multiple treatment options available, such as chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy. Some people can get drug-based immunotherapy and targeted therapy. Often, you may receive multiple treatments together.

Watch out for symptoms, and never hesitate to contact a healthcare provider if something feels off. IBC is easier to treat if diagnosed early.

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