Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a relatively rare type of breast cancer grows in the lymph vessels of the skin of the breast. Because it usually doesn’t form an easy-to-find lump and because it tends to spread rapidly, IBC is the most deadly form of breast cancer. Because the cancer is in the lymphatic system at the time of diagnosis, IBC is considered a Stage IIIB cancer unless it has already spread to other organs, which would make it a Stage IV cancer for those patients.
The average age of IBC patients is about 50, compared to over 60 years old for other breast cancers, but much younger women often get IBC. Statistics for IBC vary, but in North America, IBC accounts for about 1% to 5% of all breast cancers. The IBC rate for women of African descent may be as high as 10%.
For a long time, doctors considered IBC to be regular breast cancer cells that were more dangerous because they were in the lymph system. Recent research, however, is finding that inflammatory breast cancer cells tend to be different in some ways from other forms of breast cancer. In a study at New York University's Cancer Institute at Langone Medical Center released June 14, 2009 in Nature, scientists "have identified a key gene-eIF4G1-that is overexpressed in the majority of cases of IBC, allowing cells to form highly mobile clusters that are responsible for the rapid metastasis that makes IBC such an effective killer."
Inflammatory breast cancer’s symptoms are not the ones women are trained to look for. Although many IBC patients have a lump, the majority do not. The characteristic redness, swelling and skin dimpling most associated with IBC are caused by cancer cells in the lymph vessels blocking the normal flow of lymph fluid. In fact, the symptoms vary quite a bit from patient to patient. However, most patients will have several of the symptoms on this list from the Mayo Clinic.
• Rapid change in the appearance of one breast, over the course of days or weeks
• Thickness, heaviness or visible enlargement of one breast