Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer may fluctuate over time or become more intense, depending on this fast-growing cancer’s growth.

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According to the American Cancer Society, inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) accounts for roughly 1–5% 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.

This article explores 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 result from 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 3–6 months.

IBC is a fast-growing, aggressive form of breast cancer. Unlike other types of breast cancer, inflammation primarily causes IBC symptoms. This inflammation 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 worsen 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.

IBC symptoms will not resolve on their own without treatment or intervention, so it’s important to talk with a doctor immediately if you have any of the symptoms mentioned above.

A handful of other conditions can share symptoms with IBC, including:

  • mastitis
  • hormonal changes
  • dermatitis
  • breast injury

Learn more about each of these potential causes below.

When should you see a doctor?

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 a doctor as soon as possible.

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Mastitis

Mastitis involves inflammation and infection of the breast tissue. Mastitis most often occurs during nursing, when milk ducts become blocked and milk buildup occurs.

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

  • a warm, swollen area on your breast that may be painful to touch
  • a lump or hard area on your 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 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. The most common types are:

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 medical professional for a physical exam.

One of the most important ways to prepare for a doctor’s appointment is by keeping track of the 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 your medical history to determine whether there are other reasons for your symptoms.

Your doctor may 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 people who are pregnant or nursing.
  • Biopsy: A biopsy is a procedure in which a healthcare professional takes a sample of tissue and examines it for cancer cells. If your doctor finds anything suspicious on a mammogram or ultrasound, they can use a biopsy to confirm if cancer is present.

What happens next if you receive a diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer?

If your doctor diagnoses IBC, treatment will begin right away. Treatment 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.

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What does cancerous breast pain feel like?

Breast cancer and breast cancer lumps are typically painless. However, people who do feel pain in their breast from cancer often describe it as a burning, tender sensation.

What are the first signs of inflammatory breast cancer?

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) symptoms tend to be more prominent and severe than other types of breast cancer. The first symptoms may include breast discoloration (similar to a bruise), breast tenderness and pain, skin dimpling, and a change in the shape of your nipple (it may become flat or retract inside your breast).

Talk with a doctor immediately if you experience any of these changes to your breast.

Does inflammatory breast cancer rash spread quickly?

IBC is an aggressive type of breast cancer. The symptoms can appear and disappear over time. At first, symptoms may be mistaken for an infection or skin irritation. However, symptoms consistently worsen within months and sometimes weeks.

What is the survival rate of inflammatory breast cancer?

According to the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results database maintained by the National Cancer Institute, the 5-year relative survival rates for IBC are:

  • Regional (localized): 52%
  • Distant: 19%
  • All stages: 39%

These survival rates are based on women who received a diagnosis of IBC between 2012 and 2018.

A relative survival rate gives you an idea of how long someone with a specific condition may live after their diagnosis compared with someone without the condition. For example, a 5-year relative survival rate of 52% means that someone with that condition is 52% as likely to live for 5 years as someone without the condition.

Who is most likely to get inflammatory breast cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, IBC tends to occur in women under 40 years old. It’s more common in Black women than white women. People with obesity or overweight are also more at risk.

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 become consistently worse as the disease progresses.

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