Because it is aggressive and rare, battling triple-negative breast cancer can be difficult, and fewer treatment options are available.
What is triple-negative breast cancer?
Triple-negative breast cancer is the least common type of breast cancer.
To understand triple-negative breast cancer, a person needs to know more about the three major types of breast cancer. These are:
Progesterone receptor positive and estrogen receptor positive are the most common types of breast cancers.
For people who develop one of these types of cancers, there are hormonal therapy options that can help attack the cancer cells. If one therapy does not work, often another therapy may.
Another common breast cancer type is HER2 receptor positive. In cases of HER2, the cancer cells have an abundance of HER2 receptors on their surfaces. Similarly to the breast cancers caused by hormone receptors, HER2 breast cancer can be treated with different therapies that target the HER2 receptor.
Triple-negative breast cancer refers to cancer that has not tested positive for any of the three other types. It is also the least common form of breast cancer and the hardest to treat.
Unlike the three main types, triple-negative breast cancer has no targeted therapies available, currently. It is also more likely than the other types of breast cancer to spread and recur.
Currently, researchers are interested in finding out more about some of the risk factors for developing triple-negative breast cancer. Those that researchers have identified so far include:
Obesity and inactivity
Individuals with mutated genes are at higher risk for triple-negative breast cancer, as well as other common cancers.
A family history of breast cancer can help determine if a someone is at a higher risk of developing breast cancer in the future.
Some research suggests that age may play a role in increased risk fof developing triple-negative breast cancer.
Premenopausal women have been found to develop triple-negative breast cancer more often than postmenopausal women.
Race or ethnicity
Some studies suggest that certain backgrounds may make people more susceptible to triple-negative breast cancer. A disproportionate numbers of cases of triple-negative breast cancer affect African-American women.
Some studies suggest that whether a woman has ever been pregnant plays a role in increasing or decreasing her risk of triple-negative breast cancer.
Women who have had children tend to be more at risk than those who have not. Similarly, women who only have one child are less likely to develop triple-negative breast cancer than women with multiple children.
Mammograms may be used to diagnose triple-negative breast cancer.
Diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer starts with detection.
As with other breast cancers, a person may feel a small, hard bump on or near their breast. In other cases, a routine scan of the breasts may reveal an area of concern.
Once the growth is detected, a doctor will need to take tissue samples from it. In many cases, this is done with a needle that extracts samples from the suspected lump. The samples are sent to a lab for further testing.
The lab will return a pathology report to the doctor detailing what the growth is made of. In some cases it is benign, meaning there are no cancer cells. Other times, the pathology report indicates that it is cancerous.
What type of breast cancer a person has will be highlighted by the pathology report as well. Someone whose cancer does not fit into one of the three main categories will receive a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer.
Chemotherapy is one of the few treatments available for triple-negative breast cancer.
Treatment options for triple-negative breast cancer are limited compared to what is available for the other types of breast cancer.
Hormone therapies are found to be less effective because this type of cancer is not influenced by the three hormones associated with other breast cancers.
However, a few different options are available, and researchers are looking for additional medications to help treat this more aggressive breast cancer.
Currently, treatment options for triple-negative breast cancer include:
Surgical options include the partial or full removal of one or both breasts. Someone in the early stages of triple-negative breast cancer may not want to consider a mastectomy, as the first-line of treatment.
In more advanced cases, a doctor may recommend a mastectomy to remove the cancer before it can spread.
Radiation is another potential treatment for people with triple-negative breast cancer. Radiation targets and kills the cancer cells to stop their growth and spread.
Studies suggest that chemotherapy may be the best treatment option for triple-negative breast cancer.
A general treatment plan should be developed between an individual and their doctor. The plan should outline what steps will be taken to treat the cancer, self-care, and what to do if the cancer does not respond to treatment or starts to spread.
An important part of treatment is for a person to remain active and eat a variety of healthy foods. Improving diet and exercise may help someone feel better during treatment.
Researchers describe the outlook for cancer in 5-year survival rates. In the case of triple-negative breast cancer, people are less likely to survive the first 5 years after the diagnosis than those diagnosed with other types of breast cancer.
However, survival and overall prognosis vary from person to person. Many factors can affect an individual's prognosis, including:
- when the cancer was discovered and treated
- what stage the cancer is and, whether or not it has spread
- how the cancer responds to treatment
In cases where the cancer is caught in earlier stages and treated effectively, a person has a much higher survival rate than if it is discovered in the later stages, where the cancer has spread or does not respond to treatment.