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Inflammatory breast cancer appears as a red swollen rash that is warm to the touch. The breast looks pitted like the skin on an orange or what some refer to as “pig skin”. Cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the breast causing the inflamed appearance of the skin. The breast can become sore and achy, with a burning sensation. The nipple can invert. Women over the age of 50 are most affected. The condition is rare, affecting five percent of breast cancer patients and very aggressive with symptoms spreading in a matter of weeks. Inflammatory breast cancer treatment needs to take place as soon as possible to overt the spread of this aggressive condition.
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Diagnosing breast cancer requires tissue sampling of the tumor and surrounding area. Examining the lymph nodes will indicate if the disease has spread. Physicians use needle biopsy under magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), often to avoid unnecessary surgery that can disfigure the breast. A plan of treatment is developed that may include chemotherapy and hormone treatment if the cancer has spread.
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The Mayo Clinic offers several courses of treatment for inflammatory breast cancer. The treatment depends on the spread of the disease. Pre-surgery treatment includes chemotherapy that shrinks the tumor as much as possible. Later extraction of the tumor is less invasive and raises the chances of survival. During surgery, frozen sections of the breast tissue are sent to pathology for immediate examination. The results of the frozen section can determine the extent of tissue removal and guide the surgeon in what areas of the breast to remove.
Surgery is a standard treatment for inflammatory breast cancer in many cases because the spread of the disease happens quickly. A simple mastectomy involves removing the entire breast tissue. Involvement of the lymph nodes can require node removal in the chest and under the arm. In some cases, it is necessary to remove chest muscle. If a tumor is confined to a small area, a radical mastectomy may not be required and just the tumor is removed.
Post surgery treatments include radiation and chemotherapy. Radiation pinpoints a precise area and delivers high dose x-ray to the tumor area. Medications such as hormone treatment are used during chemotherapy and after surgery. Physicians began using the treatments when they discovered some cancers are sensitive to hormone blocking agents that keep estrogen from reaching breast tissue. Treatments can last up to one year after surgery to block any recurrence.
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Many hospitals are conducting clinical treatments for inflammatory breast cancer treatment and other forms of cancer. John Hopkins University through the Kimmel Cancer Center is looking at comprehensive treatments involving hormones and genetic markings of cancer cells. The Mayo Clinic is also exploring genetic mutations and markings that can predispose a person to cancer such as environmental exposures, mother and child gestation and correlations to cancer by fathers exposed to carcinogens.
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Any indication or suspicion of breast cancer should warrant a trip to the doctor. The sudden appearance of a rash, swelling of the breast or pitted skin needs immediate attention. Seek a physician that has credentials as a breast cancer specialist by checking the Medical Board in your state and look for a hospital that has a comprehensive inflammatory breast cancer treatment program.
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National Cancer Institute: Inflammatory Breast Cancer Questions and Answers
Mayo Clinic: Inflammatory Breast Cancer
John Hopkins Medicine: Breast Cancer: Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment
Mayo Clinic: Inflammatory Breast Cancer Clinical Trials List