Inflammatory breast cancer is rare

Cells in your breasts, just like cells throughout your body, grow and divide when you need new cells. When they divide, they create copies of your DNA. If these copies have an error, new cells may grow out of control. When breast cells have these DNA errors, you may develop breast cancer.

Different types of breast cancer cause different symptoms and start in different cells. The most common breast cancer, ductal carcinoma, starts in milk duct cells. Sometimes these cancer cells spread to other parts of the breast.

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare form of breast cancer that occurs when cancer cells spread and block lymphatic vessels in your breast. Lymphatic vessels carry cells that fight infections throughout your body.

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What are the signs of inflammatory breast cancer?

Instead of causing you to develop a lump in your breast, the skin on your breast can get swollen, red and warm. It can also start to look like an orange peel—thick with small dimples. These symptoms may come on fast, so if you notice changes in your breasts, talk to your doctor.

Your doctor will examine your breast and may ask you to have a mammogram (breast X-ray) or other imaging test, like a breast ultrasound. These images can help your doctor spot cancerous cells.

How is inflammatory breast cancer treated?

Because inflammatory breast cancer is in the lymph vessels, it also means it's in nearby lymph nodes and may have spread to other parts of your body. You'll work with an oncologist (cancer doctor) to create a complete treatment plan, including chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy, to destroy cancer cells no matter where they are in your body.

Breast cancer treatment has advanced greatly in the last 30 years. Treatments are now more effective with fewer side effects.

Steps in inflammatory breast cancer treatment

The first step in treating inflammatory breast cancer is chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses medicine to kill cancer cells throughout your body. You may get chemotherapy through pills, injections or an IV.

Chemotherapy helps shrink the cancer cells that are blocking the vessels in your breast. It also helps kill cells that are in other parts of your body and stop cancer from growing and spreading. You might get chemotherapy for a few months.

After chemotherapy, you'll have surgery to remove your breast (mastectomy). Your surgeon will also remove some of the lymph nodes near your breast to test them for cancer cells. If cancer cells are in your lymph nodes, your doctor may have to remove more lymph nodes to make sure the cancer is gone.

You'll have a few weeks to heal after surgery before you have radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses powerful, high-energy beams to destroy any cancer cells around your breast or lymph nodes that may be left after surgery.

Two out of three breast cancers use estrogen to cause them to grow. To help keep your cancer from coming back, you may have hormone therapy. During hormone therapy, you either take pills to stop your breasts from absorbing estrogen, or pills that stop your body from making estrogen. You'll need to take the pills for five to ten years after surgery. Hormone therapy is a popular way to help keep women cancer-free.