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What you need to know about Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Gail Carlson, MPH Ph.D., State Health Education Specialist, University of Missouri Extension



A friend recently told me about Inflammatory Breast Cancer. It sounded terrible, is it something I should be concerned about?

Breast cancer of any kind should be of concern to women. It is the most common form of cancer in women followed by lung cancer. However, the chances of any one women having Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) are slight. IBC is not common. Let’s look at a few numbers. There are about 2,268,000 women age 18 and older in Missouri. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 3,730 new cases of breast cancer among Missouri women in 2007. IBC accounts for 1% to 5% of all breast cancers. In other words about 40 to 200 women in Missouri could develop IBC each year. Remember, men can also develop breast cancer. However, IBC in men is rare.

Your friend may have seen a recent television program or received a copy of a chain e-mail that has been circulating among women. Both are well-meaning efforts to raise awareness about IBC. However, it led some women to believe that IBC was a new condition or that the number of cases had increased dramatically. In fact, IBC is not new condition. The American Cancer Society has been providing information about IBC since 1996. The National Cancer Institute also provides information and keeps track of the number of reported IBC cases. It is true that the number of reported cases of IBC did increase throughout the 1990s. However, the increases were not dramatic and it is too early to tell why the rates are increasing. The increase could be the result of increased awareness and reporting or it could be due to the fact that more women are being exposed to suspected risk factors. All of this continues to be studied.

Following are some things you should know about IBC.

  • IBC is not caused by an infection; it is not contagious. It occurs when the lymph vessels in the breast become blocked by breast cancer cells. This blockage may cause the breast to become red, swollen, and warm.


  • Other symptoms may include:
    Pain in the breast.
    Skin changes in the breast area – skin may develop pink, red or purple areas; it may appear ridged, pitted and thick like the skin of an orange.
    A bruise on the breast that doesn't go away
    Sudden swelling of the breast
    Itching of the breast
    Nipple discharge or retraction (the nipple turns inward)
    Swollen lymph nodes under the arm, above the collarbone or in both places.


  • IBC can be difficult to detect. There is no lump or tumor as there is with other more common forms of breast cancer. IBC may not show up on a mammogram. The disease grows in nests or sheets that clog the lymph system under the skin. Often inflammatory breast cancer is mistaken for other breast conditions or a breast infection and treated with antibiotics. If the redness and swelling does not clear up after a week on antibiotics request a breast biopsy or referral to a breast specialist. IBC is diagnosed based on the results of a biopsy and the judgment of the health care provider.


  • IBC is an aggressive form of cancer. It strikes women at an earlier age than other forms of breast cancer. African-American women are also at greater risk. The cancer can spread quickly over a matter of weeks. Treatment usually begins within days of diagnosis. IBC like other forms of breast cancer are usually treated with multiple approaches including radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. IBC is considered an advanced form of cancer. Nevertheless, progress is being made in treatment and survival rates are improving.

The American Cancer Society urges women to know how their breasts normally feel so they can easily detect any change. If any change occurs, see a health care provider as soon as possible and request immediate follow-up if symptoms do not improve after initial treatment.

More information about breast cancer and IBC is available from the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute

For more information about breast and cervical cancer check out Team Up Missouri's webpage at:

This information is being provided for educational purposes. Your health provider can make recommendations specific to your situation, follow his or her advice.

1) National Comprehensive Cancer Network (2005) Types of Breast Cancer
2) American Cancer Society (2006) Estimated New Cancer Cases for Selected Cancer Sites by State, US, 2006
3) American Cancer Society (2005) Detailed Guide: Breast Cancer 




Last Updated 05/05/2009







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