Understanding Breast Cancer Subtypes: Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Following a typical diagnosis of breast cancer, a physician will then seek to determine what type of tumor it is. If inflammatory breast cancer is the suspected type of cancer, the doctor will likely order a diagnostic mammogram, among other imaging tests, to gather more data. Next, the doctor will likely request a biopsy of the breast tissue to confirm the diagnosis. In the case of inflammatory breast cancer, the doctor will also be looking at the regions surrounding the breast to determine how far the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and other tissues. Once all the data has been carefully gathered, the doctor can then begin determining the best treatment plan for a specific patient.

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare and aggressive form of the disease.  It is called “inflammatory” because the breast tissue can likely appear swollen and red, or “inflamed”. It is known to account for approximately 1% to 6% of all breast cancers diagnosed in the U.S.

This breast cancer subtype can grow very quickly, often in as little as weeks or months. It’s important to note that inflammatory breast cancer does not have a distinctive lump and may not appear on a mammogram. This type cancer is typically a stage III or stage IV diagnosis, depending on whether the cancer cells have begun to spread to nearby lymph nodes or other tissues. 

Compared with other subtypes of breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer is typically diagnosed in younger women (median age 57 vs. 62 for other types of breast cancer). For African American women, the median age is even younger when compared to white women (median age 54 vs. median age 58). This type of breast cancer is also more common in obese women when compared to normal weight women.

Early symptoms for inflammatory breast cancer can include a persistent itch and the appearance of a rash or small irritation similar to an insect bite. The breast tissue then becomes red, swollen and warm. The skin in the breast area may also have the pitted texture and thickness of an orange. Typically, these symptoms appear suddenly and progress quickly over the period of several weeks.

Once inflammatory breast cancer has been diagnosed, a multimodal approach to treatment is typically followed. This includes treatment with systemic chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, followed by surgery to remove the tumor, and radiation therapy to prevent recurrence.  Research has found that the multi-modal approach to treating inflammatory breast cancer yields better treatment responses from patients and extended survival.

In addition to the standard cancer therapies offered in the multi-modal approach, there are other treatment options that could be viable depending on the tumor’s unique characteristics. Targeted therapies can use the cancer’s specific genetic or biological traits to aid the body in attacking the disease. If the breast cancer is hormone-receptor positive, hormone therapy to stop the production of estrogen and progesterone may help to slow cancer growth. And for some patients with inflammatory breast cancer, a stem cell transplant may help to reduce the chance of cancer recurrence.

According to Dawn Leonard, M.D., of the Samuelson Breast Cancer Center at Northwest Hospital, “Although it’s a scary diagnosis, it is a rare diagnosis. It’s about awareness. As long as patients are being seen by doctors who specialize in breast care and are aware of the diagnosis, it can be caught. Survival, although not guaranteed, is much improved with newer techniques than it was many years ago. And given the opportunity, we really do believe these patients have the possibility of doing just as well as other patients diagnosed with breast cancer.”


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