Inflammatory Breast Cancers and Common Impostors

Inflammatory Breast Cancer Shares Symptoms With Other Conditions

Mammography examination. Credit: Media for Medical / Contributor / Getty Images

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a very aggressive form of cancer. While it is fast moving and dangerous, it is not very common. However, there are many other conditions that are easily mistaken for IBC due to their symptoms. By being aware of IBC and other impostor conditions, you can differentiate between what is an emergency versus what is benign. 

What is Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

 IBC is extremely rare, responsible for just one in five percent of all breast cancers in the United States.


Most forms of IBC occur in the milk ducts within the breasts and it advances quickly, usually within just a few weeks or months. By the time it is diagnosed, it is usually at a more advanced stage, such as stage III or stage IV. 

Breast cancer tends to occur in women younger than with other forms of breast cancer and it is more frequently diagnosed in African American women. IBC is usually hormone receptor negative, meaning that the usual hormonal therapies, such as tamoxifen, are not effective. 

What Are the Symptoms of IBC?

Common symptoms of IBC are swelling or redness over at least a third of the breast. The skin can appear bruised and the skin can be pitted, resembling the texture of an orange.With IBC, the cancer cells block lymph vessels in the skin of the breast, causing the breast to appear very swollen, sore or red.”

This is caused by a buildup of the lymph fluid in the breast. Other symptoms include a rapid enlargement of the breast, tenderness and swollen lymph nodes under the arm or collarbone.


Why Do I Need to Know About IBC Impostors?

These symptoms are also frequently seen with other conditions, many of which are less serious than IBC. IBC is often misdiagnosed as another condition and is treated incorrectly. Because IBC is so aggressive, this can put your health at risk. 

These conditions may look like IBC, but they are noncancerous and will respond to antibiotics and ointments:

  • Infected milk ducts
  • Rash on breast skin
  • Bruise on breast skin

IBC and Mammograms

“Inflammatory breast cancer will show up on a mammogram, as a thickened skin and the changes may be subtle to detect.

Even if you recently had a clear mammogram, if you see the symptoms listed above, please consult your doctor immediately.

How is IBC Treated?

Once diagnosed, your doctor will likely recommend an aggressive treatment plan. You may be treated with chemotherapy to shrink the tumor and then the tumor is typically surgically removed. Radiation treatment will then be used as well; this process is called a multimodal approach. Women who go through this have a better response to treatments and a higher survival rate. 

In terms of prognosis, it varies widely from case to case. As compared to other cancers, women with IBC tend to have a worse prognosis than others. That's because IBC is so quick-moving and because it is often diagnosed at more advanced stages. However, your individual prognosis is dependent on many factors, such as your medical history, at what stage you were diagnosed and the tumor location. Talk to your doctor about an effective treatment plan. 


IBC Research Foundation. IBC Slide Presentation (PDF document). Last Updated: 10/30/05.

National Cancer Institute. "Inflammatory Breast Cancer". Last Updated: 2/2015..