Share on Pinterest
Extreme Media/Getty Images

According to the American Cancer Society, inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) accounts for roughly 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses.

Unlike other noninflammatory forms of breast cancer, IBC tends to cause an entirely separate set of symptoms. In some cases, these symptoms can come and go and vary in severity or intensity, depending on how quickly the cancer is growing.

Here, we’ll explore the most common symptoms of IBC, including the pattern of when they come and go and whether they could be due to another underlying condition.

IBC symptoms tend to be more prominent and severe than those of noninflammatory breast cancers. Common symptoms may include:

  • breast edema (swelling)
  • breast redness
  • breast skin that is thick or pitted
  • an inverted or retracted nipple
  • an increase in breast size
  • warmth and heaviness in the breast
  • tenderness or pain in the breast or surrounding area
  • itching in or around the breast
  • swollen lymph nodes

IBC symptoms are caused by a blockage of the lymphatic system within the breast, which causes pain and swelling. Many of these symptoms develop quickly, usually within a period of 3 to 6 months.

IBC is a fast-growing, aggressive form of breast cancer. Unlike other types of breast cancer, symptoms of this condition are primarily caused by inflammation, which leads to swelling, pain, redness, and other symptoms.

When the symptoms of IBC appear, they may come and go in the beginning. In fact, some of the symptoms mentioned above can appear suddenly and may be mistaken for another condition with similar symptoms, such as an infection or rash.

However, unlike other conditions that resolve over time with treatment, the symptoms of IBC become worse over a period of weeks or months. Although they may vary in intensity, once the cancer has begun to spread, it will continue to cause pain, swelling, and other symptoms in the affected breast.

Unfortunately, inflammatory breast cancer symptoms will not resolve on their own without treatment or intervention, so it’s important to see a doctor immediately if you have any of the symptoms mentioned above.

There are a handful of other conditions can share symptoms with inflammatory breast cancer, including the following:

Mastitis

Mastitis is a condition characterized by inflammation and infection of the breast tissue. Mastitis most often occurs during breastfeeding, when milk ducts become blocked and milk buildup occurs.

Many symptoms of mastitis are similar to those of IBC and may include:

  • breast swelling
  • an increase in breast size
  • warmth and heaviness in the breast
  • tenderness or pain in the breast or surrounding area
  • itching in or around the breast
  • a cut or wound on the breast or nipple
  • fever, malaise, or other symptoms of infection

In most cases, mastitis causes symptoms that IBC doesn’t, such as headache, fever, or nipple discharge.

Hormonal changes

Hormonal changes, such as those that occur before menstruation or during pregnancy, are a common cause of breast pain, breast tenderness, and sudden changes in breast size.

Unlike IBC, these hormonal symptoms are generally mild and are accompanied by other symptoms, such as:

  • tenderness, heaviness, or dull pain in both breasts
  • dense, coarse, or lumpy feeling breast tissue
  • growth and enlargement of breasts
  • aching in the breasts and surrounding area
  • darkening of the nipples
  • increased size of the nipples
  • leaking of colostrum in the second or third trimester of pregnancy

Hormonal changes do not tend to cause some of the other symptoms of IBC, like redness or inflammation.

Dermatitis

Dermatitis is an umbrella term for a handful of inflammatory skin conditions that cause symptoms such as redness, itching, peeling, and more. Atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, dyshidrotic dermatitis, and seborrheic dermatitis are the most common types.

When dermatitis affects the skin of the breasts, symptoms can resemble IBC and may include:

  • redness or swelling of the skin
  • blistering or rashes on the skin
  • dry or cracked skin
  • itchy, painful skin

Unlike IBC, breast dermatitis tends to affect only the skin of the breast, rather than the underlying breast tissue.

Breast injury

Breast injuries that cause trauma to the breast and surrounding areas can cause symptoms that mimic IBC, such as pain, tenderness, and bruising. Direct physical contact, repetitive movements, and surgery are the most common causes of breast injuries.

Like IBC, breast injuries can cause a handful of inflammatory symptoms, including:

  • bruising of the breast
  • tenderness or pain in the breast
  • breast swelling
  • red, dimpled, or bruised skin
  • lumpy breast tissue due to fat necrosis
  • hematoma of the breast

Since breast injuries can cause symptoms also found with IBC, it’s important to visit a healthcare professional for a physical exam.

Pain, discomfort, and minor changes to the breasts aren’t always an indication of IBC. Sometimes, they can be due to another underlying condition.

However, since IBC is aggressive, early diagnosis and treatment are important. If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above or have noticed any abnormal changes to your breasts, consult with a doctor as soon as possible.

One of the most important ways to prepare for your appointment is by keeping track of symptoms you’re concerned about. If possible, write down notes about:

  • when the symptoms began
  • changes you’ve noticed
  • how the symptoms feel
  • anything else your doctor might need to know

After you and your doctor have reviewed your symptoms, they will likely perform a physical exam and review of your medical history to determine if there are other reasons for your symptoms.

It’s likely that your doctor will also want to perform diagnostic testing, which may include:

  • Mammogram. A mammogram is an imaging test that takes an X-ray of the breast tissue. Mammograms help detect any suspicious areas of the breast that should be further investigated.
  • Ultrasound. An ultrasound is an imaging test that uses sound waves to produce an image of the breast tissue. Since ultrasounds use sound waves instead of radiation, they are safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
  • Biopsy. A biopsy is a diagnostic procedure in which a sample of tissue is taken and examined for cancer cells. If your doctor has found anything suspicious on a mammogram or ultrasound, a biopsy can be used to confirm if cancer is present.

If you have been diagnosed with IBC, treatment will begin right away and usually includes chemotherapy to reduce the size of the tumor(s), followed by surgery and radiation therapy.

In addition, novel treatment options for IBC are continuously being researched, so speak with your doctor about treatment options that may be available to you.

IBC causes a wide range of symptoms, including breast pain, redness, swelling, changes to the breast skin or nipples, and more. Many of the symptoms of IBC come on suddenly and may even appear to come and go. However, these symptoms will become consistently worse as the disease progresses.

If you’ve noticed sudden changes to your breasts and are concerned that it may be IBC, schedule an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible.