Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

This type of cancer is harder to treat than some -- but we’re up for the challenge

When you have breast cancer, we perform a variety of tests to diagnose what type of the disease you have and what stage it’s in. These factors and others help us determine the treatment options that are likely to work best for you.

We test all breast cancer tumors for groups of proteins, called receptors. We test for three types of these receptors:

  • HER2 (a gene in the cancer cells)
  • Estrogen receptors (ER)
  • Progesterone receptors (PR)

These receptors are what allow tumors to respond to the targeted breast cancer therapies we use. If your breast cancer tumor doesn’t have enough of the three receptors -- or if it has none of these receptors at all -- we say it’s triple-negative breast cancer.

Dr. Lisa Newman

World’s leading expert on triple-negative breast cancer

What is triple-negative breast cancer?

Triple-negative breast cancer is one of many types of breast cancer. Some respond differently than others to the variety of treatment options we have in our arsenal.

Triple-negative breast cancer is one of the more difficult types to treat. It doesn’t respond well to treatments like biological therapy and hormone therapy, which are more targeted therapies that work for other types of breast cancer.

It may be difficult to treat, but it’s not impossible. We have treatment options for triple-negative breast cancer, and we’re ready to put them to work. We understand what it takes to beat triple-negative breast cancer, and we’re here to help you do just that.

  • What makes triple-negative breast cancer different?

    Triple-negative breast cancer tends to be more aggressive compared with other types of breast cancer. This means triple negative breast cancer:

    • May be more likely to spread outside the breast
    • May come back faster after treatment
    • May grow faster than other forms of breast cancer

    Part of the reason for this aggressive behavior is the lack of treatments that target this type of cancer cells. This behavior may contribute to the poorer prognosis for patients with triple-negative breast cancer. These patients have a somewhat lower average survival rate for the first five years after their diagnosis than patients with other forms of breast cancer. But this difference decreases and eventually disappears after five years following diagnosis.

    Triple-negative breast cancer also can be harder to detect during a mammogram than other types of breast cancer. This is because the triple-negative breast cancer cells tend to look and grow more like normal breast cells than other types of cancer.

  • Who is most at risk for triple-negative breast cancer?

    Anyone can get triple-negative breast cancer. In fact, researchers have noted that about 10 to 20 percent of allcases of breast cancer in the United States test negative for ER, PR, and HER2. But some people are at higher risk than others for the disease, such as:

    • African-American and Hispanic women. One study noted that African-American women are three times more likely to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. (You can read about the study’s results here.)
    • Women with a mutation in the BRCA1 gene. BRCA1 stands for breast cancer gene 1. We test for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations as part of our genetic testing for breast cancer.
    • Younger patients. Triple-negative breast cancer is more likely to appear before age 40 or 50. Most other types of breast cancer first appear in women 60 and older.

    Research into the risk factors and treatment of triple-negative breast cancer remains a high priority for our cancer team. Lisa Newman, M.D., is one of our internationally-acclaimed surgical oncologists. Dr. Newman oversees a research and training program that spans the globe from Michigan all the way to Ghana and Ethiopia. Her research focuses on triple-negative breast cancer in African-American women and skin-sparing mastectomy techniques. With Dr. Newman’s contributions and those of our oncology team, we continue to make progress into better screening and treatment options.

  • What are my treatment options for triple-negative breast cancer?

    For other types of breast cancer, we typically recommend that you start with one of the targeted biological or hormone therapies we offer. But triple-negative breast cancer doesn’t respond well to these therapies.

    Instead, we use a combination of treatments for triple-negative breast cancer, including:

    Triple-negative breast cancer responds particularly well to chemotherapy. In fact, some evidence suggests that it may actually respond better to chemotherapy than other forms of breast cancer.

    We often provide chemotherapy treatment after surgery to reduce the risk of breast cancer returning. We call this approach adjuvant chemotherapy. In some cases, we recommend chemotherapy before surgery to shrink breast cancer tumors and preserve as much healthy breast tissue as possible. We call this approach neoadjuvant chemotherapy. You and your doctor will discuss these options and create a treatment plan that’s right for you.

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