Inflammatory Breast Cancer

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Inflammatory breast cancer is a form of breast cancer that causes breast swelling and skin changes.

Inflammatory breast cancer happens when a growth of cells forms in the breast tissue. The cells break away from where they started to grow and travel to the lymphatic vessels in the skin. The cells can block the vessels and cause the skin on the breast to look swollen. This skin on the breast might look red or purple.

Inflammatory breast cancer is considered a locally advanced cancer. When a cancer is locally advanced, that means it has spread from where it started to nearby tissue and possibly to nearby lymph nodes.

Inflammatory breast cancer can easily be confused with a breast infection, which is a much more common cause of breast swelling and skin changes. Seek medical attention right away if you notice skin changes on your breast.


Inflammatory breast cancer doesn't commonly form a lump, as occurs with other forms of breast cancer. Instead, signs and symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include:

  • Fast change in the appearance of one breast, over the course of several weeks.
  • Thickness, heaviness or swelling of one breast.
  • Changes in skin color, 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.
  • Flattened nipple or nipple that turns inward on the affected breast.

For inflammatory breast cancer to be diagnosed, these symptoms must have been present for less than six months.

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with a doctor or other healthcare professional if you have any symptoms that worry you.

Other, more common conditions have symptoms similar to those of inflammatory breast cancer. A breast injury or breast infection, called mastitis, may cause skin color changes, swelling and pain.

Inflammatory breast cancer can easily be confused with a breast infection, which is much more common. It's reasonable and common to first be treated with antibiotics for a week or more. If your symptoms respond to antibiotics, additional testing isn't necessary. But if the condition does not improve, your healthcare professional may consider more-serious causes of your symptoms, such as inflammatory breast cancer.

If you've been treated for a breast infection but your symptoms continue, contact your healthcare professional. You may have a mammogram or other test to evaluate your symptoms. The only way a healthcare professional can know whether your symptoms are caused by inflammatory breast cancer is to remove a sample of tissue for testing.


Inflammatory breast cancer happens when cells in the breast develop changes in their DNA. A cell's DNA holds the instructions that tell the cell what to do. In healthy cells, the DNA gives instructions to grow and multiply at a set rate. The instructions tell the cells to die at a set time. In cancer cells, the DNA changes give different instructions. The changes tell the cancer cells to make many more cells quickly. Cancer cells can keep living when healthy cells would die. This causes too many cells.

Most often the DNA changes happen in a cell in one of the tubes, called ducts, that can carry breast milk to the nipple. But the cancer also can begin with a cell in the glandular tissue, called lobules, where breast milk can be produced.

In inflammatory breast cancer, the cancer cells break away from where they started. They travel to the lymphatic vessels in the breast skin. The cells grow to clog the vessels. The blockage in the lymphatic vessels causes skin color changes, swelling and dimpled skin. This skin is a classic sign of inflammatory breast cancer.

Risk factors

Factors that increase the risk of inflammatory breast cancer include:

Being female

Women are much more likely than men to get breast cancer, including inflammatory breast cancer. Everyone is born with some breast tissue, so anyone can get breast cancer.

Being younger

Inflammatory breast cancer is more frequently diagnosed in people in their 40s and 50s.

Being Black

Black people have a higher risk of inflammatory breast cancer than do white people.

Being obese

People who are obese have a greater risk of inflammatory breast cancer.


Making changes in your daily life may help lower your risk of breast cancer. Try to:

Ask about breast cancer screening

Talk with your doctor or other healthcare professional about when to begin breast cancer screening. Ask about the benefits and risks of screening. Together, you can decide what breast cancer screening tests are right for you.

Become familiar with your breasts through breast self-exam for breast awareness

You may choose to become familiar with your breasts by occasionally inspecting them during a breast self-exam for breast awareness. If you find a new change, lumps or other unusual signs in your breasts, tell a healthcare professional right away.

Breast awareness can't prevent breast cancer. But it may help you to better understand the look and feel of your breasts. This might make it more likely that you'll notice if something changes.

Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all

If you choose to drink, limit the amount of alcohol you drink to no more than one drink a day. For breast cancer prevention, there is no safe amount of alcohol. So if you're very concerned about your breast cancer risk, you may choose to not drink alcohol.

Exercise most days of the week

Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. If you haven't been active lately, ask your healthcare professional whether exercising is OK and start slowly.

Limit hormone therapy during menopause

Combination hormone therapy may increase the risk of breast cancer. Talk with a healthcare professional about the benefits and risks of hormone therapy.

Some people have symptoms during menopause that cause discomfort. These people may decide that the risks of hormone therapy are acceptable to get relief. To reduce the risk of breast cancer, use the lowest dose of hormone therapy possible for the shortest amount of time.

Maintain a healthy weight

If your weight is healthy, work to maintain that weight. If you need to lose weight, ask a healthcare professional about healthy ways to lower your weight. Eat fewer calories and slowly increase the amount you exercise.

By Mayo Clinic Staff



Posted in: Just Diagnosed, Medical/Science