Overview

If you’ve been diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), you may wonder how this diagnosis will affect your life.

Some questions you may have are:

  • What is triple-negative breast cancer?
  • Is it treatable?
  • What will treatment be like?
  • What’s my long-term outlook?

The answer to those and other questions you may have will depend on several factors, such as the stage of the cancer and how well it responds to treatment. Keep reading to learn more about TNBC and your outlook.

The outlook for breast cancer is often described in terms of 5-year survival rates. Survival rate represents the percentage of people who are still alive a minimum of 5 years after their diagnosis.

Five-year survival rates tend to be lower for triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) than for other forms of breast cancer.

Learn more about the recurrence rate for triple-negative breast cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for TNBC is 77 percent. However, an individual’s outlook depends on many factors, including the stage of the cancer and the grade of the tumor.

Your healthcare provider will be able to give you a more precise outlook based on:

  • the stage of your TNBC
  • your age
  • your overall health

How well the cancer responds to treatment will also determine your outlook.

Breast Cancer Healthline is a free app for people who have faced a breast cancer diagnosis. The app is available on the App Store and Google Play. Download here.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, one of the first things your healthcare provider will do is determine whether the cancer cells are hormone receptive. Knowing if your cancer is sensitive to certain hormones will help direct your treatment, and it can offer insight about your outlook.

Some cancer cells have receptors for the hormones estrogen and progesterone, as well as an overexpression of the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) gene. If HER2 genes are overexpressed, the cells make too much of the protein HER2.

If your cells have hormone receptors, the hormones can fuel the growth of your cancer cells. Not all breast cancer cells have these receptors, and not all cancers overexpress the HER2 gene.

If your cancer isn’t sensitive to these hormones and doesn’t have an increased amount of HER2, it’s called triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). TNBC represents 10 to 15 percent of all breast cancers.

Hormone therapy stops hormones from causing cancer growth. Because TNBC cells lack estrogen and progesterone, and their HER2 genes aren’t overexpressed, the cells don’t respond well to hormone therapy or medications that block HER2 receptors.

Instead of hormone therapy, treating TNBC often involves:

Like other types of breast cancer, TNBC can often be treated successfully if it’s caught early. However, in general, survival rates tend to be lower with TNBC compared to other forms of breast cancer.

TNBC is also more likely than some other types of breast cancer to return after it’s been treated, especially in the first few years after treatment.

The stage of breast cancer is based on the size and location of the tumor, as well as whether the cancer has spread beyond the part of the breast in which it originated. To determine the stage of breast cancer, healthcare providers use a scale of stage 0 to stage 4.

Stage 0 breast cancers are isolated in one part of the breast, such as a duct or lobule, and show no sign of spreading into other tissue.

Stage 1 is typically localized, although further local growth or spread may cause the cancer to move into stage 2.

In stage 3, the cancer may be larger and has affected the lymph system. Stage 4 cancer has spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes, and into other organs and tissues of the body.

In addition to stages, breast cancers are given grades based on the size, shape, and activity of the cells in the tumor. A higher-grade cancer means a greater percentage of cells look and act abnormal, or they no longer resemble normal, healthy cells.

On a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being the most serious, TNBC is often labeled grade 3.

Even though TNBC doesn’t usually respond to hormone therapy treatment, newer medications called poly ADP-ribose polymerase (PARP) inhibitors as well as immunotherapy are sometimes used to treat TNBC.

Finding a better treatment for TNBC is a major focus of breast cancer research.

There are different subtypes of TNBC. Each one has its own abnormalities, but drugs geared toward those unique abnormalities are helping people with TNBC.

Even though TNBC can be an especially aggressive type of breast cancer, your healthcare provider may or may not recommend aggressive treatment. The standard of care for TNBC is a chemotherapy backbone, either alone or in combination with other conventional therapies.

Ongoing clinical research is being conducted to improve on the current practice and future direction of TNBC treatment.

It’s also important to remember that no one, not even your healthcare provider, can determine exactly how your breast cancer will progress or respond to treatment. Survival rates are based on statistics, but everybody has an individual experience with the disease that can’t be predicted.

Q:

I lost a family member to TNBC. Will I have a similar outlook? Is survival rate tied to genetics?

Anonymous patient

A:

The survival rate for TNBC is related to the grade of the cancer (how abnormal the cells look), the stage of the cancer, and other factors such as response to therapy and general health. While a family history of TNBC or a genetic mutation may put you at a higher risk of developing TNBC, it doesn’t necessarily put you at a higher risk of dying from the disease. There’s emerging research suggesting that those with genetic mutations who develop TNBC may benefit from certain types of targeted treatments. Your healthcare provider or a genetic counselor can help to discuss any concerns related to family history.

The Healthline Medical TeamAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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