One of the most aggressive and deadliest forms of breast cancer is often mistaken by women as a rash or skin infection. Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) is rare, accounting for only 1 to 5 percent of all new breast cancer cases in the United States, but it is also one of the hardest to diagnose.
“In cases of IBC, the skin can look like a rash, but it’s not itchy like a rash. Or it may be considered an infection, but it’s not painful like an infection,” says Dr. Arlene Ricardo, breast cancer surgeon at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital. “The breast will be hard and firm to the touch, but there may be no pain felt.”
By definition, IBC starts as a Stage 3B cancer since it involves the skin, says Dr. Ricardo. It is often diagnosed at either a stage 3 or 4 because the disease progresses rapidly in a matter of weeks or months. According to the National Cancer Institute, IBC tends to be diagnosed at younger ages and is more common among African-American women and obese women. It can also occur in men.
What are the symptoms?
There are several symptoms that are unique to IBC. Unlike other breast cancers, there is no lump found in IBC cases, leaving many to second guess their symptoms and delay seeing a doctor. IBC is most recognizable by changes in the appearance of the breast area, caused by cancer cells that invade and block the lymphatic vessels.
“Unlike other types of breast cancer, in cases of IBC a lump can’t be felt during a physical exam or seen in a mammogram. But, IBC is visible to the eye,” says Dr. Ricardo. “The sooner you are able to get a diagnosis, the better, so it is best to always be mindful of changes in the breast area.”
What are the treatment options?
Due to the aggressive nature of the disease, IBC tumors in some cases are unable to be treated with hormone therapies. Instead, a multidisciplinary approach is used to treat patients diagnosed with the disease.
Patients receive chemotherapy to help shrink and kill cancer cells, and then undergo surgery to have the cancer removed, which is followed by radiation therapy.
Research has found IBC patients who receive multiple forms of treatment may live longer. Unfortunately, due to how aggressive IBC is and how rapidly it spreads even with treatment, there are cases where women do not survive as long as those diagnosed with other types of breast cancer.
“Every patient’s experience is different and many factors come into play in terms of how the patient responds to treatment,” says Dr. Ricardo. “A patient’s overall general health, stage of the disease and location of the cancer all play a role.”
Dr. Ricardo encourages both women and men to seek the opinion of a specialist if you experience any symptoms of IBC or notice any changes in your breast area. Click here to schedule an appointment at a Memorial Hermann Breast Care location.