Breast Cancer - Inflammatory: Overview

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2010

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Inflammatory Breast Cancer. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen. Think of that menu as a roadmap to this full guide.

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare form of breast cancer. The cancer gets its name because the symptoms are like those of mastitis (inflammation of the breast) and include redness, tenderness, swelling, and pain in the breast. However, unlike mastitis, inflammatory breast cancer does not improve with antibiotic treatment.

Cancer begins when normal cells in the breast begin to change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body). At some point, cells may break off from the primary mass and move to other parts of the body in a process called metastasis.

The breast is mainly composed of fatty tissue. Within this tissue is a network of lobes, which are made up of tiny, tube-like structures called lobules that contain milk glands. Tiny ducts connect the glands, lobules, and lobes, carrying the milk from the lobes to the nipple, located in the middle of the areola (darker area that surrounds the nipple of the breast). Blood and lymph vessels run throughout the breast; blood nourishes the cells, and the lymph system collects fluid from tissues to return to the blood and carries cells that help fight infection and disease. The lymph vessels connect to lymph nodes, the tiny, bean-shaped organs that help fight infection.

In inflammatory breast cancer, the cancer cells block the lymph vessels within the breast, which causes fluid backup and swelling of the breast and overlying skin. Because this type of breast cancer can grow quickly, it is treated with a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy; see Treatment for more information.

Find out more about basic cancer terms used in this section.

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