Redness and inflammation are common signs of an infection or injury, but when these symptoms occur in the breast, it may signal an unusual type of breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer is among the most aggressive types of breast cancer, and it requires immediate diagnosis and care. However, all too often this cancer, which can progress in a matter of weeks to months, isn’t diagnosed until later stages when it’s harder to treat.
Inflammatory breast cancer is rare. It accounts for 1 to 5% of all breast cancer cases, and as with all cases of breast cancer, it occurs less frequently in men. It develops when cancer cells block the lymph vessels, which are small tubes located in the skin that drain waste and infection from the body, leading to symptoms including redness, swelling, and warmth in the breast.
Most inflammatory breast cancers are invasive ductal carcinomas, which develop in the milk ducts and invade the surrounding breast tissue. Inflammatory breast cancer is particularly difficult to treat because these tumors are usually hormone receptor negative, meaning they do not need hormones such as estrogen or progesterone to grow. That means that these tumors aren’t helped by medications (such as a hormonal therapy called tamoxifen) that reduce the levels of hormones in the body.
“The first line of treatment for inflammatory breast cancer is chemotherapy,” says Brigid Killelea, MD, MPH, director of Breast Surgery for Yale Medicine. “It is important to begin treatment shortly after diagnosis to limit the spread of cancer as much as possible. After chemo, mastectomy and removal of the lymph nodes under the arm are performed, usually followed by radiation.”