Many of us think that breast cancer starts with a lump, but in some rare instances, breast cancer can in fact start with the reddening and swelling of the breast instead of a distinct lump. This type of breast cancer is known as Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC).
Whilst rare, it is an incredibly aggressive form of breast cancer that tends to grow and spread quickly, with the symptoms worsening within days or even hours. Given this, it’s incredibly important to recognise the symptoms and seek prompt treatment.
Whilst inflammatory breast cancer is more common in African American Women, according to the American Cancer Society, being overweight can also make you more likely to develop IBC, and like other forms of breast cancer, men can also develop IBC.
What are the symptoms?
Although most breast cancers begin as a lump, inflammatory breast cancer will usually start with a feeling of thickness or even heaviness in the breast, with some redness, or inflamed skin also developing. IBC tends to develop in the form of layers of tissue on the breast, which some doctors will refer to as ‘nests’.
The swelling is a result of the cancer cells clogging the vessels that carry lymph. Lymph is a clear, watery flued that transports white blood cells and removes bacteria and proteins from the breast tissue.
Common symptoms of IBC can include:
- Redness of the breast: Redness involving part, or all of the breast is a hallmark feature of IBC.
- Swelling of the breast: Some, or all of the breast may be swollen, hard and enlarged
- Warmth: The breast may be warm to touch
- Orange-peel appearance: Your breast may swell and start to look like the peel of an orange
- Other skin changes: The skin of the breast may look pink or bruised
- Swelling of the lymph nodes: The lymph nodes under your arm or above the collarbone may swell
- Flattening or inversion of the nipple: The nipple may go flat or turn inward
- Aching or burning: Your breast may ache or feel tender
While these symptoms are also synonymous with mastitis, a breast infection that can occur in nursing mothers, mastitis usually causes a fever and responds quickly to antibiotics.
If you are diagnosed with mastitis and are not responding to treatment, ask your doctor about testing for IBC. The same is true if you are suffering from cellulitis.
How is IBC diagnosed?
As inflammatory breast cancer forms in the layers of the breast tissue, doctors may not be able to feel a distinct lump during a breast exam. A mammogram may also not detect it either. In most cases, IBC is diagnosed after your doctor can see or feel the changes to your breast, and sadly because it is such a quick growing cancer, approximately one in three people with IBC discover it has spread to other areas of the body, also known as metastatic, by the time they are diagnosed.
What are the treatments for IBC?
To treat inflammatory breast cancer, your doctor will use a combination of strategies including chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy, and possibly targeted therapies.
This combination approach ensures the best possible outcome for the patient. Perhaps the biggest difference between IBC and other forms of breast cancer is that surgery is usually not the first treatment your medical team will opt for.
To read Tracey’s journey with IBC, check out her blog here.
For more information on IBC, feel free to reach out to us firstname.lastname@example.org