Inflammatory breast cancer is a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer with a rapid onset of symptoms. This form of breast cancer usually involves the whole breast by time an initial diagnosis is made rather than being localized to one area in the form of a lump as is often the case with other forms.
Inflammatory breast cancer is easily confused with breast infection and inflammation or mastitis, which can complicate diagnosis.
A doctor may suspect inflammatory breast cancer based on physical examination of symptoms. However, the only reliable test for confirming a diagnosis is biopsy. Other tests may also be ordered to examine changes in the breast or to check the other breast.
Typically, diagnosis involves:
Biopsy is the gold standard for diagnosing inflammatory breast cancer. Small samples of the breast tissue are taken from the breast and sent to the laboratory for microscopic analysis. Samples from the lymph nodes in the armpits may also be taken.
This is a breast X-ray that helps to detect breast cancer and shows changes in affected areas of the breast. It is also performed as a routine screening procedure for many women worldwide.
This imaging study uses high frequency sound waves to produce an image of the breast and therefore helps determine the presence of tumors and changes within the breast.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) may also be performed in certain cases. MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create a cross-sectional image of the breast.
Chest X-ray helps determine whether the cancer has spread to the lungs.
A CT (computerised tomography) scan and bone scan can help determine whether the cancer has spread to any other part of the body.
Once diagnosis is confirmed, the cancer is staged. Staging is important in determining the likely outcome for a patient and therefore the most suitable treatment plan. The stages are divided and numbered 1 to 4 according to the size and extent of the cancer, with stage 4 representing the most severe disease.
However, because inflammatory breast cancer is quick to develop and typically involves the whole breast and lymph nodes on initial diagnosis, it is usually categorized as stage 3 by time it is diagnosed.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc