Health Answers

What is inflammatory breast cancer and is it worse than regular breast cancer?

By Judy Foreman
February 9, 2009
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While treatment for inflammatory breast cancer has improved in recent years, it still carries a worse prognosis than many other forms of breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for inflammatory breast cancer is 40 percent, compared with 87 percent for all breast cancers.

In typical breast cancers, the tumor forms a lump that a person can feel or see on a mammogram. In the inflammatory kind, which makes up 1 to 2 percent of the roughly 180,000 new breast cancer cases per year, the cancer "is often not a mass," says Dr. Eric Winer, chief of the Division of Women's Cancers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. "Instead, the breast is often warm, red, swollen and tender." The cancer is often misdiagnosed as an infection treatable by antibiotics.

The cancer moves so quickly "that the breast can become noticeably larger in just a few weeks," says Dr. Barbara Smith, director of the breast program at Massachusetts General Hospital. What makes the cancer so dangerous, she says, is that it grows in the lymphatic vessels, "the highways out of the breast to the rest of the body." Immediate treatment is essential.

Women with inflammatory cancer get chemotherapy first to get rid of cancer cells that have spread to the rest of the body, then surgery and radiation.

A potent drug called Herceptin can also be used.

Two years ago, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas became the first clinic in the world to open a specialized program for inflammatory breast cancer. Other centers, including Dana-Farber, are developing such programs.

Because care is specialized, doctors advise women to seek treatment at major medical centers.

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Clarification: The Health Answers column in yesterday's Health/Science section should have noted that, while the drug Herceptin is sometimes used to treat inflammatory breast cancer, it has not been approved for this use by the US Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has approved the drug for treatment of some other breast cancers.

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