Inflammatory Breast Cancer 101

African-American women are more likely to be diagnosed with this rare, aggressive form of the disease. 

Posted: 10/15/2012 03:00 PM EDT

Tiffany Mathis is currently undergoing chemotherapy to treat her stage 1 breast cancer.  (Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

We know that more than 1,700 Black women die from breast cancer every year, which is almost two times the rate of white women.

Here’s another sad statistic: Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with more aggressive forms of breast cancer which do not respond as well to treatment.

With inflammatory breast cancer, a rare form that accounts for only one to five percent of all diagnosed cases, Black women are also more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age than white women.

What is inflammatory breast cancer?

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that blocks the vessels in the skin that carry lymph fluid throughout the body. This form of cancer causes the breasts to look swollen and red.

What are some of the symptoms?

Patients with inflammatory breast cancer may experience red and swollen breasts, bruised skin around the breasts, swollen lymph nodes in underarms, burning sensations and increased breast size. The skin may also look pitted like an orange because the fluid is all backed up and the nipple may also face inward.

It’s also important to know that with inflammatory breast cancer if there are tumors, they may be difficult to detect or feel, which makes it incredibly difficult to diagnose with a mammogram. Given that this form of breast cancer progresses so quickly, within just a month of a mammogram, the cancer could have spread.

How serious is it?

It’s pretty serious and deadly. Most inflammatory breast cancer develops from cells that line the milk ducts of the breast and then spread beyond the ducts, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Inflammatory breast cancer can develop and progress in a few weeks or months. For many women, when they are diagnosed with this form, they are already in Stage III or IV, and the cancer may have spread to other lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

Because of its aggressiveness, women with this type of breast cancer do not survive as long as women diagnosed with other types. According to statistics from NCI’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program, the five-year relative survival for women diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer during the period from 1988 through 2001 was 34 percent, compared with a five-year relative survival of up to 87 percent among women diagnosed with other stages of invasive breast cancers.

To make matters worse, Black women have lower survival rates from inflammatory breast cancer compared to women of other races and ethnicities. Past studies have found that 53 percent of Black women survive at least two years after being diagnosed compared to 69 percent of other women.

How is it treated?

There are many ways to treat inflammatory breast cancer. Usually it is first treated with chemotherapy — drug treatment that uses powerful chemicals to kill fast-growing cells — then surgery to remove the tumors, followed up with radiation therapy.

Learn more about inflammatory breast cancer here.

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