Inflammatory Breast Cancer Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare and very aggressive form of breast cancer. It only accounts for 1-3% of all breast cancers. The most recent data shows that even with aggressive treatment, the five-year survival rate only stands at 40%. This is in part due to delays in treatment because of misdiagnosis, as it is often mistaken as a breast infection.

Possible symptoms (not everyone will have all of these symptoms):

  • Red, pink, or bruised appearance over part or all of the breast. Some people reported it started out looking like a mosquito bite while others had patches of redness in various sizes.
  • A breast that is warm to the touch
  • A breast that has swollen in size (some have reported dramatic changes in size in as little as 24 hours)
  • Peau d’orange of the breast skin. This causes the skin to resemble the skin of an orange peel (in texture, not color)
  • Itching or pain in the breasts
  • Swollen lymph nodes under the arms or above the collarbone
  • Inverted nipple possibly accompanied by discharge of the nipple
  • Thickened areas of the breast skin

Please note you do not have to have all of these symptoms. Many women only have a few of these symptoms. ANY changes in your breast should be reported as soon as possible to your physician. Also, there may be a lump present in the breast with IBC but more often than not, there is NO LUMP. This is one reason diagnosis is so difficult.

Many physicians will first treat with antibiotics which is standard treatment as an infection is more likely than inflammatory breast cancer. However, if your symptoms do not clear with antibiotics, DEMAND a biopsy.


IBC is very aggressive and as such is diagnosed at a minimum stage of 3B. If it has already spread, it is diagnosed at a stage 4 of four possible stages. You cannot delay in diagnosis or treatment if this type of cancer is suspected.

While mammograms and self breast exams are still highly encouraged, there is typically no discernable lump with inflammatory breast cancer. While these tests can confirm other symptoms (such as thickening), they are generally not used to diagnosis or rule out IBC.

According to an article on MD Anderson’s website, the best way to diagnosis IBC is through a biopsy. Be aware that one negative biopsy does not necessarily mean you do not have this cancer, though it is a good sign. Inflammatory breast cancer grows in sheets in the skin and can be easily missed with a punch biopsy. A surgical biopsy where a larger area of skin and tissue is examined is the best way to diagnosis IBC.


Treatment for IBC can vary based on where you seek treatment and your medical history. Typical treatment is chemotherapy, modified radical mastectomy followed by possibly more chemotherapy and radiation. There are also clinical trials around the country that you can participate in.

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Stacey Abler
Stacey's husband joined the Army in 2003 and was medically retired after four deployments. She enjoys sharing her experiences and expertise around Army life while continuing to support Army spouses and families in their military journey.

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  1. I noticed a couple of weeks ago first that my breast looked like there was red circles inside the breast, not on the outside, then I noticed both my breasts look like a reddish purple color on my skin.They both are not warm or hurt. But I have never known my breasts to look like that. Has anyone ever experienced this? And if so what do I need to do?

  2. I am going through a very similiar situation. Im literally dying inside waiting to find out what is what. I was just in the hospital last week for 7 days on IV antibiotics for what they first said was cellulitis in my right breast but then they changed the diagnoses to mastitis. While in the hospital I developed pnuemonia and thrush really bad. I could’nt move my neck or head and had terrible migraines. I had an MRI of my head and neck and Xray and CT I believe of my chest. They found swollen lymph nodes in my neck. Two days before I went to the ER I went to urgent care with pain under my armpit towards my breast and a high fever. They said it was the Flu because my daughter was diagnosed positive with it the week prior. I went home and got severly worse with temp 104.8 and only coming down to 102 with Tylenol (can’t take ibuprofen). So I am home from the hospital an my symptoms are all coming back again with my breast and headaches. My right breast is peeling as if it was sunburned. I have a purpleish bruise looking area on the right, at the same spot as a big knot feeling tight skin area. I had sharp shooting pains streak through it last night. I had my follow up apt at a new doctor (just moved) and she is ordering me a 3d mammogram and an ultrasound for this Wednesday and another round of a different antibiotic. Just so you know months ago my breast was super itchy to the point where I did itch it raw and the sores never healed so they thought it could be an infection from that. The sores are healed and I was treated with Augmenten so you would think if it were and infection it would have cleared up right? Im at a loss and worried.

    1. Katie, I hope by this time you have received the news that it was a false alarm. I’m so sorry you have had to endure all of this uncertainty. I remember what it was like to be in that state of mind like it was yesterday. If you have a chance, please let me know how you are doing.

  3. There’s not a doctor I trust. I have large breats and am overweight by less than 25 lbs. I’m retired (72) and watch t.v. a lot since I am a loner and choose not to have friends or relatives in my life. I watch t.v. with my arms folded across my breasts so the purple that looks like broken capillaries I just assumed was the pressure of my arms on my breats. But I began looking today about what the discoloration could mean and found information I didn’t want to read. I don’t have any other visual or physical symptoms other than the bruised purple coloring that isn’t solid, but scatters at pleaces a couple of inches around my nipples which are normal in follow. Both breasts look the same with the same coloring. I’M TERRIRIED! I never go to my doctor because I’ve had nothing but objections from her on how I treat things holistically. Why does this have to be happening just when I feel in control of my life and content. I’m so relieved for your outcome, you have no idea. But now, this is just started on my breasts a couple of weeks ago and don’t know what to do after the study I did today. It makes me sick! I don’t have relatives or friends to help me. I think I’ll just observe for awhile and see what happens. I’m not a medicaiton person…my doctor pushes tests and pills…I don’t want to go to her.

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