Comparing Symptoms of Inflammatory Breast Cancer and Mastitis

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Inflammatory breast cancer, or IBC, is an aggressive, rare type of breast cancer that produces symptoms similar to those seen when a woman is experiencing mastitis—characterized by breast inflammation and infection. Let’s take a closer look at the signs and symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer, and why it’s important to see your doctor if any of these develop.

The Challenge Behind Diagnosing Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer is a fast-growing type of breast cancer that accounts for an estimated 1 percent of diagnosed breast cancer cases, according to the American Cancer Society. However, the disease may be more prevalent than we think, as cases may not have been accurately reported due to its challenging diagnosis.

The diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer can be difficult because it produces symptoms that are different from the more common types of breast cancer. Unlike other breast cancers, IBC usually does not appear first with a breast mass or lump, debunking a popular myth that all breast cancers cause lumps. Also, IBC might also not show up on a mammogram, making the diagnosis that much trickier.

Signs and Symptoms of Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Signs and symptoms of IBC usually develop rapidly and occur together. They may include the following:

  • Inverted nipple
  • Orange peel-like appearance on or around the breast or dimpling of the skin
  • Breast that is warm to the touch
  • Breast that is itchy
  • Painful, sore, or heavy breast
  • A sudden increase in breast size due to swelling or skin thickening
  • Change in color of breast—especially redness of one-third or more of the breast
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the armpit or near the collarbone

It’s important to report these changes to your doctor promptly. Don’t wait for symptoms to go away or get better. Because of IBC’s aggressive nature, early detection is absolutely critical.

Mastitis and Inflammatory Breast Cancer Symptoms

The symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer, especially breast tenderness, redness, warmth, and itching, are similar to the symptoms of mastitis—a breast infection that is most often seen in women who breastfeed or who are pregnant. While the redness, swelling, and breast pain associated with mastitis is caused by a buildup of white blood cells and increased blood flow in the breast, in IBC, these same symptoms are caused by cancer cells blocking lymph vessels in the skin of the breast. So while mastitis will get better with antibiotics, IBC will not.

If you are being treated for mastitis and symptoms are persisting for a week or more or getting worse with antibiotics, it’s important you contact your doctor for cancer screening. Your doctor may refer you to a breast specialist for a thorough evaluation.

Remain proactive in your breast health. Talk to your doctor about when you should start screening and how often. Also, always report new breast findings to your doctor, even if you had a recent normal mammogram.

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