We have been told over and over to examine our breasts for lumps, as they are the most obvious symptom of breast cancer. However, certain types of breast cancer, specifically inflammatory breast cancer, do not necessarily cause a lump to form in the breast.
Early detection is vital, but it is rare when it comes to inflammatory breast cancer. However, knowing what to look for can help us bring the symptoms to a physician’s attention sooner so that earlier diagnosis may be possible. So let’s take a look at inflammatory breast cancer and what we should be looking for when we examine our breasts at home.
What is inflammatory breast cancer?
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. According to NIH, the National Cancer Institute, this form of breast cancer accounts for 1 in 5 cases of breast cancer diagnosed in the United States. With IBC, by the time of diagnosis, the cancer is at “stage III or IV disease, depending on whether or not it has spread only to nearby lymph nodes or to other tissues as well.”
Additional features of IBC include the following:
Compared with other types of breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer tends to be diagnosed at younger ages.
Inflammatory breast cancer is more common and diagnosed at younger ages in African American women than in white women.
Inflammatory breast tumors are frequently hormone receptor negative, which means they cannot be treated with hormone therapies.
Inflammatory breast cancer is more common in obese women than in women who are not overweight.
According to Breastcancer.org, “the average age at diagnosis for inflammatory breast cancer in the United States is 57 for white women and 52 for African American women. These ages are about five years younger than the average ages at diagnosis for other forms of breast cancer.”
Men are also at risk of getting IBC and other types of breast cancer, but men are usually diagnosed at an older age than women.
What are the symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer?
Diagnosis for IBC occurs at later stages because symptoms associated with IBC are similar to other diseases or conditions, such as infection, injury, or another type of breast cancer that is locally advanced. Because of the elusive and aggressive nature of this disease, it is vital to learn the signs and keep track of changes in our bodies, so we know when to seek treatment.
Symptoms of IBC include the following:
Swelling (edema) and redness (erythema) that affect a third or more of the breast
Breast skin that is pink, reddish-purple, or bruised
Breast skin with ridges or appears pitted, like the skin of an orange (called peau d'orange)
A rapid increase in breast size
Sensations of heaviness, burning, or tenderness in the breast
An inverted nipple (facing inward)
Swollen lymph nodes may also be present under the arm, near the collarbone, or both
According to the National Cancer Institute, because IBC doesn’t usually form lumps that can be felt or seen in a mammogram, it can be difficult to diagnose. Additionally, this disease is often found in women with dense breast tissue, which makes detection even more challenging. However, an international panel of experts has published guidelines on how doctors can diagnose and stage IBC correctly to help with earlier diagnosis and choosing the best course of treatment.
When to contact a physician
Whenever you notice changes in your skin that seem suspicious or resemble the signs above, you should consult with a physician. Experts are always working to help with earlier diagnoses, but it is up to the individual to keep track of changes in their bodies - you know your body better than anyone else!
For information on breast self-examination, click here.
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