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What is Triple-Negative Breast Cancer?

There are several types of breast cancer, each one with a different primary treatment plan. That’s why your oncologist will gather important information before recommending a breast cancer treatment plan for you.

The information they need is gathered from a sample of cells taken during your breast tissue biopsy and includes: grade, type, and hormone receptor status. Triple-negative breast cancer, while rare, is one of several categories of breast cancer. 

What Makes it Triple-Negative?

Triple-negative refers to the fact that this type of breast cancer is not fueled by certain substances such as hormones or growth proteins in the body.

Estrogen and progesterone receptors are found in some types of breast cancer. Triple-negative breast cancer doesn’t show hormone receptors on the cancer cells and most likely won’t respond to breast cancer treatments using hormone blockers to slow the growth of cancer cells like many other types of breast cancer.

Another feature important for classifying breast cancer is the presence of the HER2 protein. Healthy cells have some HER2, but about 20% of breast cancer diagnoses have an excess of this protein, signaling the cells to grow and divide rapidly. Cancers that test positive for an excess of HER2 protein may be effectively treated using targeted therapies that disrupt the function and growth of HER2. Triple-negative cancer patients do not have a significant amount of HER2 protein fueling the cancer. 

How Common is Triple-Negative Breast Cancer and Who Gets It?

About 10 to 20% of breast cancers are found to be triple-negative. However, triple-negative cancer cells are found more often in people under the age of 50. This is about 10 years younger than the average age of 60 or older for other types of breast cancer diagnoses. Triple-negative breast cancer is also found in higher percentages of Black and Hispanic patients and less often in Asian and non-Hispanic patients. 

Another population that is more likely to be diagnosed with this type of breast cancer has an inherited mutation of the BRCA gene. About 70% of those with triple-negative breast cancer also test positive for having the BRCA mutation. You may qualify for genetic testing based on your family history. Learn more about genetic testing for breast cancer. 

Survival Rate for Patients with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

Triple-negative breast cancer is considered aggressive, or fast-growing, but it is treatable. Survival depends on factors such as how advanced the cancer was at diagnosis, your overall health, and your response to treatment. 

When assessing survival, researchers use a 5-year marker to make predictions about if cancer will reoccur. 

According to the American Cancer Society, if any type of breast cancer is found to be stage 1, the 5-year survival rate is nearly 100%. Stage 2 breast cancer survival is about 93%, stage 3 is 72%, and metastasized (spread to other areas of the body) or grade 4 breast cancer has about a 22% chance of survival. Keep in mind; most triple-negative breast cancers are stage 3 when found.

It’s important to note that the survival rates may be higher than this data suggests because new treatments are becoming available through clinical research. 

The Prognosis for Patients with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer 

Prognosis refers to the likely outcome of treatment for patients with triple-negative breast cancer. Unlike other types of breast cancer that have a well-proven set of treatments, triple-negative breast cancer is still in the process of being researched for a more standardized treatment plan. Because of this, several treatments may be needed to find one that is effective. Studies have shown that triple-negative breast cancer is more likely to have metastasized (moved to other areas of the body), have a higher grade, and are more likely to recur after treatment. 

Treatment Options for Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

Typically, triple-negative breast cancer patients will receive a  combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

Research shows that survival rates are higher when chemotherapy is used to shrink the tumor before surgery. Doing chemotherapy before surgery usually means fewer cancer cells in the body at the time time of surgery. This makes it less likely for cancer cells to spread to other areas of the body during the surgery. 

Another option to treat triple-negative breast cancer is using drugs that inhibit the poly ADP-ribose polymerase (PARP) enzyme. Particularly in patients that also test positive for BRCA mutation, PARP inhibitors make it harder for the cancer cells to survive.

Finally, a combination of immunotherapy and chemotherapy may treat advanced triple-negative breast cancer that tested positive for the PD-L1 protein. Immunotherapy helps the patient’s immune system work harder to fight the cancer cells, in this case also fighting the PD-L1 protein.

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, request an appointment to meet with one of our breast cancer specialists located in the Denver area, Colorado Springs, Boulder, and other areas throughout the Colorado Front Range. We are also happy to quickly schedule a second opinion to help you with making the cancer treatment decision you’re confident in.

Learn more about triple-negative breast cancer through one of our patient’s experiences and journey through breast cancer treatment. 

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