Inflammatory Breast Cancer | Symptoms, Stages, Diagnosis, Treatment & survival rates

Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer

Conventionally, breast cancer first manifests itself when the patient notices a lump or mass in her breast. After that, other symptoms may follow, such as breast pain or an abnormal discharge from the affected nipple. Not so with inflammatory breast cancer. As the name suggests, it causes strange, atypical early signs and symptoms that are normally attributed to inflammation rather than cancer. Thus, it is uncommon to find a lump affecting the breast of a patient if she has inflammatory breast cancer. Instead, she may complain of one of the following symptoms, which usually develop surprisingly rapidly (within weeks), unlike those of traditional breast cancer:

  • Appearance of a rash or redness.
  • Breast pain or tenderness.
  • A bruise that does not seem to heal.
  • Rapid swelling.
  • Discharge from the nipple.
  • A turned in or retracted nipple.
  • An area of skin that looks similar in appearance to an orange peel.
  • An itchy breast.
  • Enlargement of the lymph nodes present in the armpit or in the neck.
  • Abnormal warmth of the breast.
  • In some cases, a lump may be present.

A patient who suffers from inflammatory breast cancer may not show all of these symptoms. There are even some cases that do not show any symptoms at all, which are said to have “occult” breast cancer.

Skin cells normally get rid of the leftovers and waste products of metabolism by sending them into the lymphatic channels, which effectively drain the skin, almost functioning like a miniature sewage system. In inflammatory breast cancer, these lymphatic channels become clogged by the tumor cells, and are unable to drain the breast, thus a rapid swelling of the breast is seen. However, this is not a uniform swelling. The skin of the breast is tethered to the collarbone and other tissues by a ligament called the Suspensory ligament of Cooper. For this reason, when a swelling of the skin of the breast happens: we see many tiny dimples throughout the swelling. This fact, in addition to the reddish appearance of the breast due to the inflammation, gives the breast skin an appearance uncannily similar to that of an orange peel. Thus, this appearance is termed “Peau d’orange”.

Another problem that can happen when inflammatory breast cancer cells enter the lymphatic system is that they can spread to other body parts. This can occur if the cells circulate in the blood as well. As mentioned above, the common sites of cancer spread are the lungs, the liver, the bones, and the brain. Depending on which place the breast cancer cells ultimately end up at, different manifestations can appear. For example, if inflammatory breast cancer cells spread to the lungs, the affected individual may find herself having difficulty breathing, and even coughing blood.