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Inflammatory Breast Cancer: What You Need to Know

You’re probably familiar with some common signs and symptoms of breast cancer: from lumps and bumps to skin dimpling and swelling.

But, one type of breast cancer can present differently.

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is rare and aggressive. In this form of the disease, cancerous cells block lymph vessels in the breast, causing visible redness, inflammation, and swelling.1

Still, IBC can be challenging to diagnose, and may not show on a standard mammogram (more on that in a moment).2

That’s why turning to experts for your breast health matters.

At Precision Imaging Centers powered by HALO Diagnostics, we offer state-of-the-art 3D mammograms and additional services to detect and diagnose disease sooner.

What is Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

If you’re new to learning about inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), you’re not alone.

This aggressive, yet lesser known cancer typically develops from the cells that line the breast’s milk ducts before spreading beyond the area. The medical term for IBC is invasive ductal carcinoma.1

IBC progresses quickly. In a few weeks or months, patients may reach stage III or IV cancer – and it can happen between routine breast screenings.

Let’s dive into IBC’s differences and some common symptoms.

How is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Different?

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) differs from other breast cancers in several ways.2

Research has found that IBC:

  • often occurs in women under the age of 40,
  • may affect Black women more often than white women,
  • is more common among overweight / obese women,
  • grows and spreads faster than other breast cancers,
  • is always at least stage III when first diagnosed, and
  • can be harder to treat than other breast cancers.

What are the Symptoms of Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

Your doctor is always on your side. Still, it’s important to remember that you are your own best advocate: Because inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) doesn’t commonly cause a lump – a typical symptom of breast cancer – your provider may initially treat you for a rash or skin infection.

Common symptoms of IBC include:

  • one breast becoming thicker, heavier, or enlarged;
  • breast discoloration, with the skin appearing red, purple, or bruised;
  • breast aches, tenderness, or pain;
  • skin dimpling on the breast, similar to an orange peel;
  • enlarged lymph nodes under the arm or near the collarbone; and
  • nipple flattening or turning inward.

Like other forms of breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer can occur in men and women.2, 3

How is the Disease Diagnosed?

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) can slip under the radar.

Patients may have dense breast tissue, but no lump, making detection by a standard mammogram especially difficult.

Because IBC is fast-growing, you’ll need to receive a diagnosis just as quickly.

Doctors use the following criteria for diagnosis:

  • rapid onset of redness, swelling, and dimpled skin;
  • symptoms present for less than six months;
  • redness covers at least one-third of the breast; and
  • biopsy samples show invasive carcinoma.

To diagnose IBC, doctors turn to digital breast imaging and biopsies. They may use a 3D mammogram, breast ultrasound, breast MRI, and PET or CT scans. During a biopsy, your healthcare provider takes a small sample of your breast tissue and skin to send to a pathologist. They’ll determine if cancer cells are present.

Correctly diagnosing and staging IBC allows your doctors to determine your prognosis and develop the best treatment plan for your disease.1-3

How is Inflammatory Breast Cancer Staged?

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) begins in the milk ducts. Today, doctors can’t determine if someone has IBC until there are signs or symptoms of a blockage in the lymph vessels.

Staging IBC (and other breast cancers) helps determine the extent of disease. Common questions include:

  • What is the cancer’s size? Where is it located?
  • Has the cancer spread to nearby lymph nodes?
  • How likely is it for the cancer to grow and spread?
  • Are hormone receptors or other proteins present?

At diagnosis, IBC is at least stage 3B.3

Stage 3B

Cancer has spread to nearby areas in stage 3B, which causes the breast to swell. It is present in the ribs and muscles of the chest or skin – and may be in the lymph nodes.

Stage 3C

In stage 3C, the cancer is larger and has spread to ten or more lymph nodes, including under the collarbone. It has yet to spread to other areas.

Stage 4

Stage 4 IBC is an advanced stage of cancer.

The cancer has metastasized and spread to distant parts of the body – typically, to the bones, lungs, or liver.

How is the Disease Treated?

Every patient’s diagnosis and treatment are different, but in most cases of inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), doctors take a multimodal approach.

What does this mean?

Treatment usually begin with chemotherapy to shrink the cancer, followed by surgery and radiation therapy. Patients receiving these treatments in this order tend to respond better overall. Depending on your specific diagnosis, some doctors may also treat you with hormonal or targeted therapies.1

Contact Us

If you notice any changes to your breasts, we suggest scheduling a clinical exam with your primary care provider. Doctors in Northeast Florida trust Precision Imaging Centers with their referrals – and in cases of inflammatory breast cancer, acting fast is essential.

We provide a wide range of services to Jacksonville, Jacksonville Beach, St. Augustine, and Fleming Island, with same-day imaging and diagnosis, to give peace-of-mind to you, your physician, and loved ones.

Call (904) 996-8100 to learn more or schedule a screening online today.


1National Cancer Institute. (2016). Inflammatory breast cancer. Published online January 6, 2016.

2American Cancer Society. (2022). Inflammatory breast cancer: Details, diagnosis, and signs. Published online March 1, 2022.

3Liu, D. (2022). What is inflammatory breast cancer? Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Published online February 4, 2022.

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