Inflammatory breast cancer

The information on this page will help you understand more about inflammatory breast cancer. We recommend that you read it along with our booklet Understanding Cancer of the Breast, which you can download here.

What is inflammatory breast cancer?

Inflammatory breast cancer gets its name because the skin of the breast appears red and inflamed, like an infection of the breast. The reddened appearance is caused by breast cancer cells blocking tiny channels in the breast tissue called lymph channels. The lymph channels are part of the lymphatic system, which helps your body defend itself against infections.

How common is inflammatory breast cancer?

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type of breast cancer. Only 1–2 per cent of all breast cancers are inflammatory breast cancer.

What are the signs and symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer?

The symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer can happen quickly. The most common symptoms are a warmth, redness or swelling of the breast that may feel sore. Ridges may also appear on the skin, or the breast may appear pitted like the skin of an orange.

As with other forms of breast cancer, some women may find a lump. Others may have pain in the breast or nipple. Some may have a nipple discharge or the nipple may be inverted (pulled in).

How is inflammatory breast cancer diagnosed?

Inflammatory breast cancer can be difficult to diagnose. This is because it is a rare form of cancer and the symptoms can be similar to non-cancerous conditions, such as mastitis.

Once you have seen your GP (family doctor), you will be referred to a specialist breast unit where you will be seen by a doctor or specialist nurse. Following a physical examination of your breasts, you may have other tests such as:

  • A mammogram, which is an X-ray of the breast.
  • An ultrasound, which is a picture of the breast using sound waves.
  • A core biopsy, where a small piece of tissue is removed under a local anaesthetic and looked at under the microscope.

You may also have further tests to check that the cancer has not spread to other parts of your body. Click here for more information on the diagnosis of breast cancer.

What treatment will I be offered?

Inflammatory breast cancer can grow more quickly than other types of breast cancer so there is a stronger possibility that cancer cells may spread to other parts of your body. For this reason, treatment is usually started straight away.

The type of treatment you are offered will depend on the results of your biopsy and other tests you have had. A combination of the following treatments may be used:

  • Chemotherapy: You will usually be offered chemotherapy first. The aim of chemotherapy is to reduce the size of the tumour in the breast and to destroy any cancer cells that may have spread outside the breast. Although inflammatory breast cancer is a serious form of breast cancer, treatment options continue to improve. Click here for more information on chemotherapy.
  • Surgery: After chemotherapy, surgery is usually the next step. Ideally, the chemotherapy will have reduced the size of the tumour and the inflammation will have gone down. This will make surgery easier. Surgery usually means having the whole breast removed (mastectomy) and a lymph node clearance. In some cases it may be possible to remove part of the breast only. This will depend on the extent of the cancer and how well you have responded to chemotherapy. This is something your specialist will discuss with you. Click here for more information on breast cancer surgery.
  • Radiotherapy: Radiotherapy uses high energy X-rays to destroy cancer cells. The aim of radiotherapy is to reduce the risk of the tumour coming back in the treated area. It can be given to the chest wall area following surgery. Click here for more information on radiotherapy for breast cancer.
  • Biological therapies: Biological therapies work by blocking the growth and spread of cancer by changing the biology of cancer cells. The most well-known biological therapy is a drug called trastuzumab (Herceptin®). Trastuzumab is only suitable if your cancer has high levels of HER2, a protein that encourages cancer cell growth. Click here for more information on biological therapies for breast cancer.
  • Hormone therapy: You may receive hormone therapy if your tumour is oestrogen-receptor positive. This means that the cancer grows with the help of the hormone oestrogen. There are many hormone therapies available. Click here for more information on hormone therapy for breast cancer.

What if my cancer has spread to another part of my body?

If your cancer has spread to another part of your body, this is called advanced or secondary breast cancer. You will be offered treatment to help control the disease. Your doctor may offer chemotherapy, hormone therapy, biological therapies or a combination of these treatments. Read more about secondary breast cancer.

Coping with inflammatory breast cancer

Being diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer can be an anxious and frightening time. But everyone responds differently to their diagnosis and has their own way of coping. Many people find they have a sense of control by finding out as much as possible about their condition and treatment. It is important that you feel able to talk to your specialist or breast care nurse about any questions or concerns you may have.

You may feel alone, particularly as inflammatory breast cancer is a rare form of breast cancer. Remember that there are people who can support you, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

You can let other people know how you are feeling, including your family and friends, so that they can be more supportive. It can also help to discuss your feelings or worries with your breast care nurse or your specialist. Alternatively, a counsellor or psychotherapist might be more appropriate if you want to talk through your feelings in more depth over a period of time. Your breast care nurse, specialist or GP can usually arrange this.

More information on coping and how the Irish Cancer Society can help you.

Date Last Reviewed: 
Tuesday, January 14, 2020