Inflammatory Breast Cancer: Rare and Aggressive

Medically Reviewed

Q. Is inflammatory breast cancer different from “regular” breast cancer?

A. Inflammatory breast cancer occurs when cancer cells grow and block the lymph vessels in the breast. Inflammatory breast cancer is a much more aggressive—and uncommon—form of breast cancer than other types, such as invasive ductal carcinoma and invasive lobular carcinoma, the most common forms.

Because inflammatory breast cancer usually doesn’t manifest itself as a lump and progresses so quickly, the disease is not typically diagnosed until it is in its later stages. About a third of patients with inflammatory breast cancer have cancer that has already spread to other parts of the body by the time it’s discovered.

Inflammatory breast cancer is comparatively rare, accounting for anywhere from 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancer cases. The average age at diagnosis is about five years younger than women with other forms of breast cancer—52 in African-American women and 57 in white women. It’s also more common in African-American and obese women.

Signs of inflammatory breast cancer include redness and swelling that encompass at least a third of the breast. The breast may have a pitted appearance, like the skin of an orange, and feel warm to the touch. There may be sensations of burning, heaviness, and tenderness in the breast. The nipple may also be inverted or flattened.

Because some of these symptoms can be indications of other conditions, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible for a proper diagnosis.

Read more about mammogram guidelines for older women and the accuracy of breast biopsy results.