With Inflammatory breast cancer the most prevalent warning sign is changes in the skin... not lumps.
Normally in breast cancer, cancer cells form into a lump. Sometimes a woman can feel this lump during a breast self-exam, or a mammogram can detect it. Instead of clumping together in the breast, inflammatory breast cancer cells crowd into lymph vessels.
Lymph vessels are small channels that hold a liquid (lymph) that helps the body fight infections and filter out harmful substances. When cancer cells block the lymph nodes, they make the breast skin change color or texture.
Redness of the breast is the first sign women often notice in inflammatory breast cancer. In some women, the color turns a pink or purple shade. It can even resemble a big bruise. The color will cover one-third or more of the breast surface, and the area may feel sore or warm to the touch.
Redness and swelling are also signs of a breast infection called mastitis. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, and women are diagnosed with an infection and given antibiotics when they actually have inflammatory breast cancer.
Treating the wrong condition can delay the care needed to treat breast cancer. Doctors can determine whether it’s cancer by removing cells from the breast and examining them under a microscope during a biopsy.
Along with the color change, the skin of the breast may take on a different texture. It often looks pitted or ridged, like the peel of an orange. Sometimes this is called peau d’orange, which means “orange skin” in French.
The dimpled appearance is created when cancer cells block the lymph vessels under the skin, forming tiny bumps and ridges.
Inflammatory breast cancer is a fast-growing disease. Women who have this cancer will notice rapid changes—usually in one breast. The breast can change appearance and size in a matter of weeks.
One breast that grows quickly and becomes larger than the other breast can be a sign. The enlarged breast also might feel firmer and heavier than usual.
Some women have nipples that naturally turn inward from time to time. These are called inverted nipples, and they’re usually nothing to worry about.
But only one inward-turned nipple or nipples that stay that way could be signs of inflammatory breast cancer. Your doctor should check out this symptom with a breast exam, mammogram, or biopsy to rule out breast cancer.
Lymph nodes are small, round structures that are part of the body’s immune system. They’re full of white blood cells and other infection-fighting cells. Usually when the lymph nodes are swollen, it’s because you have an infection. Yet cancer also can cause swelling in these nodes. Women with inflammatory breast cancer will usually find swollen lymph nodes under their arm, or near the collarbone.
Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer can mimic those of other conditions—especially infection. Often women don’t realize they have this form of breast cancer until it has spread. Because this is a very fast-growing form of cancer, it’s important to be alert to symptoms like redness, swelling, and inverted nipples. Make an appointment to see your doctor if you have these symptoms.