Stage 3 breast cancer refers to cancer in the breast that has spread to several nearby lymph nodes. Doctors also describe breast cancer as stage 3 if a tumor is larger than 5 centimeters (cm), and the cancer has spread to any lymph nodes but not to distant organs.

Receiving a stage 3 cancer diagnosis can be distressing, but life expectancy and treatments are improving all the time.

This article looks at the survival rates for stage 3 breast cancer, as well as treatment options, remission, and ways of coping with the diagnosis.

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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An individual’s life expectancy depends on various factors besides the cancer stage.

Some life expectancy measures assess the size of present tumors and how far the cancer cells have spread. However, advancements in tumor biology have changed life expectancy calculations.

Staging system

The current, eighth edition of the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) staging system takes into consideration hormonal factors to determine cancer severity. Previous editions focused on physical aspects.

The current staging system measures a person’s estrogen receptor (ER), progesterone receptor (PR), and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) results. Doctors refer to a tumor as triple negative if it does not have any of these receptors.

Factors that impact a person’s outlook and life expectancy include:

  • physical cancer stage
  • ER and PR levels in the tumor tissue
  • HER2 levels in the tumor tissue
  • whether the tumor tissue is triple negative
  • the pace at which the tumor is growing
  • the likelihood of cancer recurring

ER and PR can bind to hormones in the body and use them to grow. If a person’s cancer cells have these receptors, they will be ER or PR positive.

The HER2 gene produces HER2 receptors, which control how breast cells grow. High levels of HER2 mean that breast cells will grow and divide in an uncontrolled way.

Research has found that using ER, PR, and HER2 levels alongside traditional anatomic markers provides a more accurate outlook assessment.

This deeper understanding of cancer severity means medical professionals can diagnose significantly different life expectancies and outlooks between people in the same anatomical cancer stage.

Understanding life expectancy

According to the American Cancer Society, cancer treatment and outlook are improving all the time. In addition, survival rates are guideline figures, which experts calculate using large sample sizes.

As a result, survival rate figures cannot accurately predict a single person’s life expectancy but rather offer an indication.

Also, a study that tracks survival rates over 5 years will reflect the state of medical knowledge 5 years before. This means that cancer survival rates may be better than the statistics indicate.

The most current statistics reflect results from 2011–2017.

To get a more accurate estimate of life expectancy, a person should consult a doctor.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the survival rate for females with stage 3 breast cancer over a 5-year period is approximately 86%.

A 5-year survival rate is a measure of a person’s chance of living 5 years after their cancer diagnosis compared with a person who does not have breast cancer.

Medical professionals typically use the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program stages to assess survival rates. The stage of the cancer at diagnosis helps doctors determine the best treatments and can also tell a lot about the life expectancy.

However, each person’s survival rate will be different, and these stages do not take into account many of the factors affecting a person’s breast cancer.

The SEER stages are:

  • Localized: A cancerous tumor is present, but it has not spread beyond the original site.
  • Regional: The cancer has spread beyond the original location to lymph nodes.
  • Distant: The cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

According to the NCI, the 5-year survival rates for the different SEER stages are as follows:

SEER stage5-year survival rate
localized99%
regional85.8%
distant29%

All combined, the survival rate for all stages of breast cancer is 90.3%.

Stage 3 breast cancer has spread outside the breast but not to distant sites. The cancer is typically in nearby lymph nodes or skin.

Stage 3 breast cancer is typically harder to treat than earlier stages. This, however, ultimately depends on several factors, including:

A doctor can help a person better understand the stage of cancer and how that will affect treatment options and their outlook.

Healthcare professionals distinguish between the following stages of stage 3 breast cancer:

Stage 3A

For stage 3A breast cancer, one of the following scenarios applies:

  • There may be no tumor, or there may be a tumor of any size in the breast tissue. In addition, the cancer is in four to nine axillary lymph nodes, which are in the armpits, or in the lymph nodes near the breastbone.
  • The tumor is larger than 5 cm, and small clusters of cancer cells, measuring 0.2–2 millimeters in diameter, are present in nearby lymph nodes.
  • The tumor is larger than 5 cm, and cancer is also present in up to three nearby lymph nodes under the arm or near the breastbone.

Stage 3B

A doctor will diagnose stage 3B breast cancer when tumors of any size are present, and cancer cells are in the breast wall or near the breast skin. These areas may appear inflamed and discolored and may have ulcers.

Also, stage 3B breast cancer is one that has spread to the lymph nodes near the breastbone or that is present in up to nine axillary lymph nodes.

Stage 3C

Stage 3C breast cancer may have a tumor of any size or no tumor at all, but the cancer will be present in the chest wall or the breast skin, and the skin shows inflammation or ulcers.

Also, one of the following applies to stage 3C breast cancer:

  • The cancer is in 10 or more axillary lymph nodes.
  • The cancer is in the lymph nodes reaching up to the collarbone.
  • The cancer is in the lymph nodes under the arm and in those near the breastbone.

These days, people with breast cancer can know more about the tumor than ever before.

In addition to staging, oncologists can now determine a tumor’s grade and subtype. This information helps the doctor describe the tumor and cancer stage in a more detailed way so that other members of the care team can understand the cancer better.

The tumor grade and subtype of breast cancer can vary between people. Most doctors will test tumors to determine which genes they express, so that treatment options can adapt to the results.

Doctors define different types of stage 3 breast cancer by:

  • Tumor grade: This is a measurement of how much the cancer cells differ from healthy cells under a microscope. This also provides a measure of how quickly the cancer cells are likely to grow.
  • ER status: This describes whether the cancer cells have receptors for the hormone estrogen.
  • PR status: This indicates whether the cancer cells have receptors for the hormone progesterone.
  • HER2 status: This describes whether the cancer cells are making the HER2 protein.

TNM staging system

The AJCC oversees a tumor, node, and metastasis (TNM) staging system to help doctors better understand and communicate about individual breast cancers.

The TNM staging system assesses the anatomic structure of a breast cancer and describes the following:

  • T (tumor): This number indicates the size, or extent, of the tumor and how much breast tissue is involved. A higher T grade means a larger tumor or more tissue involvement. The categories are as follows:
    • TX: Doctors cannot assess the tumor.
    • T0: Cancer cells have not grown into healthy tissue.
    • T1–4: This number describes how large or dense the tumor is and how much nearby tissue is involved.
  • N (nodes): This indicates whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes. The higher the N number, the more lymph nodes the cancer has affected. The categories are as follows:
    • NX: Doctors cannot assess lymph node involvement.
    • N0: Doctors cannot find evidence that the cancer has spread to lymph nodes.
    • N1–3: This number indicates how many lymph nodes are involved or how far the lymph node involvement has spread.
  • M (metastasis): This describes whether the cancer has spread beyond the original site and to other parts of the body. The categories are as follows:
    • MX: There is no information about metastasis.
    • M0: There is no evidence that the cancer has metastasized to distant parts of the body.
    • M1: There is evidence the cancer has metastasized.

Doctors may use this anatomic information alongside biologic assessment of ER, PR, and HER2 levels. These two systems provide more accurate breast cancer assessments than ever before.

Treatment of stage 3 breast cancer typically involves a combination of medication and surgery that doctors will base on a person’s particular circumstances.

Considerations for treatment include:

  • pregnancy status
  • personal history of cancer
  • cancer subtype
  • overall health
  • personal treatment preferences

Drug-based treatments can include chemotherapy, targeted cancer drugs, hormone therapy, or a combination of these.

Chemotherapy involves destroying cancer cells with anti-cancer drugs. There are many side effects of chemotherapy, but they usually subside once a person has finished treatment.

Side effects of chemotherapy can include:

Learn more about the side effects of chemotherapy here.

A treatment plan may begin with drug-based therapies. The goal is to reduce the size of the tumor so that surgeons can safely remove it.

If a large tumor does not shrink enough, the doctor may recommend removing the whole breast. Healthcare professionals call this a mastectomy. A lumpectomy is when surgeons remove only the tumor.

A person may wish to have reconstructive surgery following a mastectomy or lumpectomy. However, some individuals may wish to opt out of reconstructive surgery.

For example, according to a 2021 review of mastectomies from an LGBTQ perspective, many trans men saw the procedure as advantageous to affirming their personal identity and that it led to an improved quality of life.

After surgery, a person may receive radiation therapy and possibly more chemotherapy. This helps reduce the likelihood of cancer returning.

If the tumor is small enough, a doctor may begin by recommending surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Some types of breast cancer respond to hormone therapy, in which case the doctor will often prescribe hormone therapy for 5 or more years after the initial treatment is complete.

Remission is when symptoms of cancer completely or almost completely disappear. Remission can be either partial or complete.

Partial remission means that some cancer has disappeared after treatment. Complete remission is when doctors can detect no sign of cancer.

Remission does not necessarily mean that there is no cancer in a person’s body, only that the doctor cannot detect any. It is not possible for doctors to be sure that all cancer cells have gone or that the cancer will not grow to detectable levels in the future.

Stage 3 breast cancers are either operable or inoperable. If a doctor says the tumor is inoperable, that does not mean it is untreatable.

Inoperable breast cancer means surgery would not yield the desired results at this time.

For breast cancer surgery to be successful, doctors need to remove enough tissue while leaving behind healthy tissue at all the margins. If a tumor is too large or dense for that, the tumor is inoperable.

However, neoadjuvant chemotherapy may help shrink the breast cancer tumor so that it becomes operable.

Despite significant improvements in detection and treatment, many individuals experience fear or trauma after a cancer diagnosis.

A person may experience a wide range of emotions when receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, and each person’s response is unique.

It may be helpful to speak to someone, including others dealing with similar diagnoses. People may also wish to avoid overexertion and take time for themselves.

Significant physical and psychological changes can occur during breast cancer treatment. The side effects of cancer and chemotherapy, for example, can significantly reduce a person’s quality of life.

After a mastectomy, people may find the change in their bodies emotionally challenging. The removal of one or both breasts can affect a person’s sense of identity, sexuality, and sexual relationships. This may be especially true for younger women.

For some people, long-term hormone therapy can have ongoing side effects, including:

  • fatigue
  • cognitive changes
  • menopause symptoms

It can help to speak with a doctor about support groups.

The Breast Cancer Healthline app provides people with access to an online breast cancer community, where users can connect with others and gain advice and support through group discussions.

Other online communities also provide a safe place for discussion, and support groups may exist in an individual’s community or town.

A therapist can also help someone manage stress and anxiety during treatment and recovery.

Life expectancy and survival rates for stage 3 breast cancer are improving all the time. The current 5-year survival rates for stage 3 breast cancer are 86% for females and 83% for males.

However, many factors can influence a person’s life expectancy after a breast cancer diagnosis. A doctor can provide more detailed, personalized information.

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