Inflammatory carcinoma of the breast

Inflammatory carcinomas of the breast also referred as inflammatory breast cancers, are a relatively uncommon but aggressive form of invasive breast carcinoma which has a characteristic clinical presentation and unique radiographic appearances. 

Inflammatory carcinomas account for 1-4% of all breast cancers, typically occurring in women between 4th to 5th decades 1

Clinically, inflammatory breast cancer mimics mastitis. The breast is enlarged (often of relatively short onset), indurated, erythematous, warm, tender and painful. The skin is thickened and oedematous, with a "peau d’orange" appearance which is immediately apparent. There may or may not be an underlying palpable mass. The breast is not painful in spite of the alarming appearance on examination.

The condition may also present with flattening, erythema, crusting, blistering or retraction of the nipple. Fixed palpable ipsilateral axillary lymph nodes, synonymous with metastatic disease, are frequently observed.

However systemic symptoms such as fever are absent which helps somewhat differentiate from mastitis. Axillary lymphadenopathy (often fixed and palpable) may be present in ~50% of cases at presentation 7

While any subtype of primary breast carcinoma may be present, invasive ductal carcinoma tends to be the most prevalent histological type 1.

Histologically, the dermal lymphatic invasion is pathognomonic of inflammatory breast cancer but does not necessarily need to be demonstrated to make the diagnosis 10. The presence of tumorous cells in dilated lymphatics may be present in ~80% of cases 7.

IBC is a T4 tumour according to the standard TNM staging classification of breast cancer.

Mammographic findings include tumour mass and malignant microcalcifications. More specifically, inflammatory changes such as extensive skin and trabecular thickening/coarsening, and/or diffusely increased breast density are important clues that should lead the radiologist to suggest the diagnosis.

Ultrasound may be helpful to locate a hypoechoic shadowing mass, which can be obscured on mammography by diffusely increased breast density. Ultrasound may also show skin thickening (the most common and obvious finding on ultrasound), pectoral muscle invasion and axillary involvement. Ultrasound is often used to assess for areas of focal change as well as to determine a suitable site for biopsy.

According to one study, the most common MRI finding is a mass or multiple masses (73%) 8. Masses are frequently multiple, small, and confluent; mass margins, irregular; and internal enhancement pattern, heterogeneous. MRI also demonstrates evidence of skin thickening in a vast majority of cases.

In cases where an image-guided biopsy of the underlying intraparenchymal mass or axillary lymph nodes does not give the diagnosis, a skin biopsy may be indicated 10. Inflammatory breast cancer has a tendency to metastasise at an early stage 1.

Unlike other types of breast cancer in which surgery is the first modality of treatment, chemotherapy before surgery or radiation therapy is the current standard treatment.

  • infective mastitis
    • painful breast with prominent erythematous changes and fevers
  • locally advanced invasive breast carcinoma 
    • usually, a long-term presentation that has been neglected
  • lymphomatous involvement of the breast
  • other causes of breast oedema 
    • related to venous (e.g. SVC syndrome) or lymphatic obstruction (e.g. previous axillary emptying)
Breast imaging and pathology
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Article information

rID: 12469
Systems: Breast, Oncology
Section: Pathology
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Inflammatory breast cancer
  • Inflammatory cancer of the breast
  • Breast cancer (inflammatory)
  • Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC)
  • Inflammatory breast carcinoma

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