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William Holaday MD, Virtua Health Breast Surgeon
William Holaday MD, Virtua Health Breast Surgeon

When Breast Cancer Is Not a Lump

How to recognize the unique symptoms of an aggressive form of breast cancer.

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Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is rare, accounting for 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses in the U.S. Although IBC isn’t common, it is aggressive and can progress quickly—making it especially important for women to understand the symptoms and seek prompt medical treatment. 

IBC got its name because it often makes the breast look swollen and red, giving it an inflamed appearance. Often, it causes the skin on the breast to take on a dimpled appearance similar to an orange peel. The breast also may appear discolored, bruised, purple, or pink. 

The swelling caused by IBC can lead to an uncomfortable feeling, but it doesn’t typically cause pain. It’s common for women to dismiss it as nothing and avoid seeking medical treatment. 

What if youhave these symptoms? 

IBC symptoms can easily be mistaken for a less-serious breast infection. If you experience symptoms, don’t delay. Visit your primary care provider or OB/GYN as soon as possible to determine the cause. The first step in diagnosing IBC is to rule out a breast infection called mastitis, which typically clears up quickly after a course of antibiotics. 

If your breast symptoms don’t go away, your health care provider will order further testing and a consultation with a breast surgeon. IBC progresses quickly and is usually stage III or stage IV at the time of diagnosis. Stage III means that the cancer is contained (localized) in the breast and nearby lymph nodes, and stage IV means that the cancer has spread to distant areas of the body. 

Treatment for IBC

The good news is that medications developed in the past 20 years have resulted in an improved prognosis for women with IBC. Chemotherapy and, sometimes, immunotherapy followed by surgery and radiation therapy, also can be effective. 

Expert Care in South Jersey 

At Virtua Health, our breast cancer team is part of the comprehensive Penn Medicine Virtua Cancer Program. Our medical oncologists, breast surgeons, radiation oncologists, and oncology nurses specialize in breast cancer treatment and work with you to determine the best plan. With South Jersey locations in Moorestown, Voorhees, and Washington Township, you can connect to expert cancer care close to home. 

Virtua’s nationally-accredited breast cancer program also offers access to genetic counseling, clinical trials, and a dedicated oncology nurse navigator to guide you throughout treatment and connect you to supportive services for you and your family. 

To schedule a consultation with a Virtua Breast Care Specialist, visit virtua.org/BreastCare or call 856-391-0781. 

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