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More on Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Expert Patient Phyllis Johnson gives you a look into the symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and outcomes of Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC).

By Phyllis Johnson
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Article last updated on March 31, 2014

Background

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a relatively rare type of breast cancer that 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 median age of IBC patients is about 57, compared to over 62 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."

Compared to non-IBC breast cancer, IBC tumors are more often ER/PR negative and Her-2 positive. About 90% of the time patients have positive lymph nodes.

Symptoms

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 these symptoms.

•    Rapid change in the appearance of one breast, within less than six months

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