Triple-negative breast cancer is an aggressive form of the disease. To understand it, a person should know about the other types of breast cancer.
Some breast cancers have receptor cells that respond to hormones. There are three main types of receptors:
Doctors diagnose breast cancer by identifying which receptor is present. They run a series of tests for each of the three receptors, and these will return either positive or negative results.
When a person has breast cancer, but all of these results come back negative, doctors diagnose the person with triple-negative breast cancer.
Many treatments aim to block one or more of the three receptors. When results for all three are negative, hormone-based medications are not an effective option. Instead, a doctor will recommend other treatments, such as chemotherapy.
As with other breast cancers, the success of treatment for triple-negative breast cancer depends on the size of the tumor and how pervasive it is.
There are fewer treatment options for triple-negative breast cancer, and it is more likely to spread and recur than other types of the disease.
Read on for more information about triple-negative breast cancer and what to expect.
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Doctors believe that certain factors affect recurrence rates of triple-negative as well as other types of breast cancer.
Some factors that may increase the likelihood of recurrence include:
- larger tumors
- initial diagnosis when a person is 35 years old or younger
- lumpectomy without radiation
- involvement of the lymph nodes
According to specialists, the highest risk of recurrence typically occurs in the first few years following treatment. After 5 years, the risk of recurrence reduces.
People who have triple-negative breast cancer are also more likely to develop metastasis. Metastasis refers to a secondary cancer forming in a different part of the body.
One study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, determined that metastasis was most likely to appear in the brain and lung. The researchers also concluded that survival rates are better when metastasis occurs in the bones.
According to BreastCancer.org, triple-negative breast cancer accounts for 10–20 percent of all breast cancers.
The organization also states that 1 out of every 8 women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer at some point.
Doctors base survival rates on the percentage of people who are still alive at least 5 years after they received a diagnosis.
However, survival rates have some limitations:
- Doctors base the rates on a 5-year time gap, so women who have received recent diagnoses may have a higher survival rate because of advancements in treatment.
- They do not take recurrence, metastasis, or substages of cancer into account.
- Individual factors, such as age and overall health, play a role in how long a person may survive.
Doctors calculate survival rates according to the stage of the cancer when the person received the diagnosis.
The American Cancer Society report the following 5-year survival rates for breast cancer:
- stage 0 to 1 — near 100 percent survival rate
- stage 2 — about 93 percent survival rate
- stage 3 — 72 percent survival rate
- stage 4 (metastatic) — 22 percent survival rate
According to BreastCancer.Org, doctors typically class triple-negative breast cancer as grade 3. Anyone with this diagnosis should speak to the doctor about how their unique conditions affect the estimation of survival.
Certain people are more susceptible to developing triple-negative breast cancer. Some risk factors are unavoidable, while others are lifestyle-related.
Risk factors include:
- being African-American or Hispanic
- being under 50 years old
- having the breast cancer type 1 susceptibility protein, which is often called the BRCA1 mutation
- not breastfeeding
- being obese or overweight
- breast density
Symptoms of triple-negative breast cancer
The signs and symptoms of triple-negative breast cancer are similar to those of other types of breast cancer.
Some of the most common symptoms include:
- a lump or mass appearing in the breast or around it
- inverted nipples that may leak fluid
- redness or pain in the breast
Hormone therapies are not effective in treating triple-negative breast cancer. Instead, doctors focus on other options.
A treatment plan may include a combination of:
Surgery may involve:
- a lumpectomy, in which a surgeon removes some breast tissue
- a mastectomy, in which the surgeon removes one or both breasts
Though doctors may refer to triple-negative breast cancer as difficult to treat, people should note that successful treatment depends on how early a doctor detects the cancer and its stage at diagnosis.
Prevention of triple-negative breast cancer
Some people are more prone to this type of cancer than others. However, having risk factors does not necessarily mean that a person will develop it. Similarly, some people with no risk factors have triple-negative breast cancer.
While it is impossible to prevent breast cancer, a person can reduce some risks by maintaining a healthful lifestyle, including:
- not smoking
- reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption
- eating healthful, well-balanced meals and snacks
- doing regular exercise
Also, people should perform self-exams and go for regular checkups and breast cancer screenings. Early detection will help improve the prognosis.
Doctors consider triple-negative breast cancer to be an aggressive cancer. However, this does not mean that they cannot treat it.
Survival rates depend greatly on the stage of the cancer at diagnosis. Triple-negative breast cancer tends to recur more frequently than other types of cancer. However, if the cancer does not return within 5 years, this risk decreases.
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.