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How is inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) diagnosed?

Unlike other breast cancers, inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) usually does not cause a distinct lump in the breast. Therefore, a breast self-exam, clinical breast exam or even a mammogram may not detect IBC. Ultrasounds may also miss inflammatory breast cancer. However, the changes to the surface of the breast caused by IBC can be seen with the naked eye.

Symptoms of IBC can develop rapidly, and the disease can progress quickly. Any sudden changes in the texture or appearance of the breast should be reported to your doctor immediately.

For women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, redness, swelling, itchiness and soreness are often signs of a breast infection such as mastitis, which is treatable with antibiotics. If you are not pregnant or nursing and you develop these symptoms, your doctor should test for IBC.

If your doctor prescribes antibiotics and your symptoms do not disappear, several diagnostic tests may help determine whether cancer cells are present in the breast:

  • Mammogram: Often the first step in diagnosing IBC, a mammogram may show thickened skin, usually without a visible mass. The affected breast may also appear larger and denser than the other breast. However, inflammatory breast cancer may not be detected by mammogram because there are no visible lumps.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): If a mammogram is normal, an MRI may be used to detect abnormalities in the breast tissue.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) and computed tomography (CT): A combined PET and CT scan can find IBC that has moved to nearby and/or distant lymph nodes, one of the most common areas to which IBC spreads.
  • Skin biopsy: A definitive diagnosis of IBC is made by breast biopsy. If a breast exam or imaging study shows signs of IBC, your doctor will remove a sample of breast tissue and examine it under a microscope. Only a biopsy can show for sure that inflammatory breast cancer is present. If an apparent infection is not going away, you can consider asking your doctor for a skin biopsy.

Diagnosis of IBC is based primarily on the results of a doctor's clinical examination. Biopsy, mammogram and breast ultrasound are used to confirm the diagnosis. IBC is classified as either stage IIIB or stage IV breast cancer. Stage IIIB breast cancers are locally advanced; stage IV breast cancer is cancer that has spread to other organs. IBC tends to grow rapidly, and the physical appearance of the breast of patients with IBC is different from that of patients with other stage III breast cancers. IBC is an especially aggressive, locally advanced breast cancer.

Cancer staging describes the extent or severity of an individual's cancer. Knowing a cancer's stage helps the doctor develop a treatment plan and estimate prognosis (the likely outcome or course of the disease; the chance of recovery or recurrence).

This answer is based on source information from the National Cancer Institute.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.