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Inflammatory breast cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type of breast cancer that develops rapidly, making the affected breast red, swollen and tender. Inflammatory breast cancer occurs when cancer cells block the lymphatic vessels in skin covering the breast, causing the characteristic red, swollen appearance of the breast.

Inflammatory breast cancer is considered a locally advanced cancer — meaning it has spread from its point of origin to nearby tissue and possibly to nearby lymph nodes.

Inflammatory breast cancer can easily be confused with a breast infection. Seek medical attention promptly if you notice skin changes on your breast, to help distinguish a breast infection from other breast disorders, such as inflammatory breast cancer.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors

Signs and symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include:

  • Rapid change in the appearance of one breast, over the course of several weeks
  • Thickness, heaviness or visible enlargement of one breast
  • Discoloration, giving the breast a red, purple, pink or bruised appearance
  • Unusual warmth of the affected breast
  • Dimpling or ridges on the skin of the affected breast, similar to an orange peel
  • Tenderness, pain or aching
  • Enlarged lymph nodes under the arm, above the collarbone or below the collarbone
  • Flattening or turning inward of the nipple

Inflammatory breast cancer doesn't commonly form a lump, as occurs with other forms of breast cancer.

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any signs or symptoms that worry you.

Other more common conditions have signs and symptoms resembling those of inflammatory breast cancer. A breast injury or breast infection (mastitis) may cause redness, swelling and pain.

If you've been treated for a breast infection but your signs and symptoms persist, contact your doctor. Your doctor may recommend a mammogram or other test to evaluate your signs and symptoms.

It's not clear what causes inflammatory breast cancer. Doctors know that inflammatory breast cancer begins with an abnormal cell in one of the breast's ducts. Mutations within the abnormal cell's DNA instruct it to grow and divide rapidly. The accumulating abnormal cells infiltrate and clog the lymphatic vessels in the skin of your breast. The blockage in the lymphatic vessels causes red, swollen and dimpled skin — a classic sign of inflammatory breast cancer.

Factors that increase the risk of inflammatory breast cancer include:

  • Being a woman. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer than are men. But men can develop inflammatory breast cancer.
  • Being black. Black women have a higher risk of inflammatory breast cancer than do white women.
  • Increasing age. The risk of inflammatory breast cancer increases with age.
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