Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare type of breast cancer in which the lymph vessels in the breast become blocked by cancerous cells. This type of breast cancer accounts for less than 4% of all breast cancer diagnoses, according to the National Cancer Institute, but requires a highly specialized approach to treatment.


There are several significant differences between IBC and other types of breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer:
  • Does not cause a defined “bump” in the breast tissue; instead, the primary symptoms are swelling and inflammation of the breast
  • Does not always show up on a mammogram; women who develop IBC often have dense breast tissue that complicates the imaging process
  • Tends to grow very quickly; it is always classified as either stage 3 or stage 4 breast cancer at the time of diagnosis

Causes of Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer occurs when:

  • Cancerous cells develop in a milk duct and multiply rapidly
  • The cells build up and block the lymph vessels in the breast skin, hindering lymphatic drainage out of the breast
  • The cancer cells spread, or metastasize, from the lymph vessels to the lymph nodes, skin and other organs

Symptoms of Inflammatory Breast Cancer

A patient with inflammatory breast cancer may develop symptoms quickly, within just 3-6 months. Symptoms may include:

  • A reddish or purplish color or rash spread over one-third of the breast
  • Peau d’orange, a condition which causes pitting, thickening or dimpling of the breast skin and appears like an orange peel
  • Breast pain, swelling, tenderness, burning or itching
  • An inverted nipple
  • Swollen lymph nodes under the arm or near the collarbone
  • An increase in the size of one breast

Diagnosing Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer can be harder to diagnose than other cancers because a lump usually does not form in the breast.

Performing a physical examination and other tests will help your doctor rule out other issues, such as infection. To confirm a diagnosis of IBC, one or more of the following diagnostic procedures and tests may be performed:

  • A biopsy
  • An ultrasound
  • Breast MRI
  • Other types of scans, such as a PET scan or CT scan

Treatments for Inflammatory Breast Cancer

At Tampa General Hospital, we take a patient-based approach to care. This means that we don’t simply design a treatment plan based on the patient’s diagnosis; we take into account the patient’s personal preferences (such as the ability to breastfeed after treatment) to enhance each patient’s quality of life.

The state-of-the-art treatments we offer for IBC include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Hormone therapy
  • Integrative medicine services
  • Minimally invasive or robotic surgery to remove some or all of the affected breast