News at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center  

What is inflammatory breast cancer?

Dr. Mary Cianfrocca  

Mary Cianfrocca, DO, Internal Medicine Division Chief at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center

Question:  What is inflammatory breast cancer and how is it different from other breast cancers?

Answer:  Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare but aggressive form of breast cancer that accounts for less than five percent of all breast cancer cases in the U.S. It is characterized by the rapid appearance and worsening of swelling, warmth, pain, redness and even a “peau d’orange” or orange peel-like appearance that is caused by tumor cells blocking the lymphatic channels of the breast.

Since IBC does not generally present a palpable mass like more common forms of breast cancer, its symptoms are often mistaken for non-cancerous conditions such as infection, which ultimately delays diagnosis and treatment.

To ensure consensus on recommendations for the diagnosis and management of IBC, an international panel of experts convened in 2008 to establish the following minimum criteria for IBC diagnosis:  

  • Rapid onset of breast redness, swelling, peau d’orange and/or warmth with or without an underlying palpable mass
  • Duration of symptoms of six months or less
  • Redness occupying at least one-third of the breast
  • Pathological confirmation of invasive carcinoma

Patients with IBC tend to be diagnosed at a younger age than those with other forms of breast cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, IBC is diagnosed at a median age of 57 as compared to 61.9 for all breast cancer cases combined. Few risk factors are specific to IBC, but those with the strongest association include a high body mass index (BMI) and being African-American. 

Given its aggressive nature, prognosis for IBC has historically been poor with low survival rates. However, the advent of multimodality therapy—a strategy that includes chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy—has markedly improved survival rates.  

As with all cancers, early diagnosis of IBC is critical to successful outcomes. Know your body and don’t be afraid to speak up if something doesn’t look or feel right. 

Learn more about breast cancer

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