Understanding Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Understanding Inflammatory Breast Cancer

One of the rarer types of breast cancer is inflammatory breast cancer. It only affects fewer than 200,000 people in the United States. However, that doesn’t make it any less dangerous.  It is the most aggressive and lethal form of breast cancer there is. Hopefully, we can shed some insight on this rare disease and how it affects people and their lives.

If not treated, inflammatory breast cancer will kill. Even though this type of breast cancer only makes up roughly 1% of all breast cancer cases in the United States, it is still responsible for 10% of all breast cancer deaths.

Breast Anatomy

Symptoms of Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Symptoms can include a multitude of uncomfortable effects. Most breast cancers start as a lump or tumor, but inflammatory breast cancer actually starts as a feeling of thickness, like extra weight, in the breast. Inflammatory breast cancer develops and grows in layers on the breast. The sheet-like tissue is sometimes called “nests” by doctors. The breast will continue to swell and it will inflame. This often gives the breast a red color. Sometimes the redness comes and goes, but it is the most significant attribute of inflammatory breast cancer. Also, some parts of the breast might feel swollen, enlarged, and hard. The skin of the breast can change color as well. Lymph nodes under the arms or around the collarbone might also swell. It is not uncommon for people diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer to experience flattening or inversion of the nipple and an aching or burning feeling.

The symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer are familiar to other diseases making it hard to diagnose correctly. Most patients are often diagnosed late; this is because most family doctors are not familiar with inflammatory breast cancer. Additionally, odd circumstances can cause some extra confusion. For instance, one particular patient had stage four breast cancer but didn’t feel sick at all. These kinds of irregularities can be signs of other types of cancer.

Most people who are diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer are between the ages of forty and sixty. Additionally, most women diagnosed with it have never even heard of it. This cancer usually starts with a sort of reddening and swelling of the breast. Rather than a simple lump on the breast, the entire breast looks red and swollen. Inflammatory breast cancer often grows and spreads quickly. So, symptoms will likely worsen within days if not hours.

The Stages of Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Since inflammatory breast cancer differs from other various breast cancers, as it forms in layers or sheets rather than tumors or lumps, doctors and mammograms may not detect inflammatory breast cancer. However, the thickening of the skin can be felt and is quite visible. And, skin thickening can be seen on a mammogram. So, it will be found and diagnosed at a later stage than hoped for.

Because inflammatory breast cancer is diagnosed after the patient has already experienced a few of the symptoms, tests and treatment are seriously important. Before a doctor can diagnose inflammatory breast cancer, a biopsy must take place. If the breast cancer is found to be present then additional tests will be needed. A breast MRI is often used because it is considered to be the most reliable of tests when it comes to collecting information about breast cancer. Once diagnosed, a series of tests including a chest X-ray, CT scan, bone scan, and liver function tests will be staged.

Once the tests are completed and the patient has been diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, the doctor will categorize it into one of three stages; stage IIIB, stage IIIC, and stage IV are the later stages most patients are diagnosed with. Stage IIIB means that the breast cancer has spread to tissues such as the skin of the chest, ribs, or muscles around the chest. Cancer that has spread to lymph nodes around the breast area is also categorized in this stage. Stage IIIC is the stage in which the inflammatory breast cancer has spread to lymph nodes underneath the collarbone and around the neck. This includes lymph nodes within the breast. Stage IV is when the cancerous cells reach other organs. Cancer can spread anywhere such as the bones, liver, brain, lungs, and lymph nodes around the neck.

Treatment for Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Treatment today is exceptionally better at controlling the disease compared to past years. Since most people are diagnosed late, it is urgent to seek treatment as soon as possible. Even though the diagnosis is serious, doctors today have a better understanding of the disease, so they can treat people in more effective ways.

For treatment, most doctors will utilize a variety of strategies. Chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy are possible combinations that doctors will use. This combined approach to treatment allows doctors to understand and control the disease more effectively than they have been able to before. Other forms of breast cancer use surgery as the first treatment, whereas inflammatory breast cancer does not.

As mentioned before, some irregularities, or mutations, do occur. Because of these mutations, doctors and scientists must work that much harder to try to find cures. Mutations can share certain qualities with other diseases. That helps scientists determine possible ways to help people by comparing and contrasting other diseases. For instance, a drug approved for lung cancer might be beneficial to some women with inflammatory breast cancer. The target genetic mutation, ALK,  in some women can be treated with crizotinib. Also known as Xalkori, the drug used to treat late-stage lung cancer patients can also treat some women with inflammatory breast cancer because they share the same mutation.

People at risk

Inflammatory breast cancer patients in the past have shared some qualities. People who are obese or overweight are at a higher risk of getting this form of cancer. Additionally, African-American women are also at higher risk. Most people diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer are usually between the ages of forty and sixty. And, much like other forms of breast cancer, men can also be affected.

If you have been diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer or any other form of breast cancer, it is dire that you seek medical attention and treatment. A few organizations and foundations have been established to help anyone who has been diagnosed. Talk to your doctor today if you think you might be experiencing any symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer.