The outlook for people with triple-negative breast cancer depends on the stage and grade of cancer at the time of diagnosis, your age and overall health, and how the cancer responds to treatment.

The survival rates for triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) are typically lower than other forms of breast cancer. This is because TNBC tends to grow quickly and is more likely to have spread by the time it’s diagnosed. It’s also more likely to come back after treatment than other types of breast cancer.

TNBC accounts for approximately 10–15% of all breast cancers.

This article reviews survival rates for people with TNBC, and the factors that affect those survival rates.

The Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER) database, maintained by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), tracks survival rates for specific types of breast cancer based on how far the cancer has spread at the time of diagnosis.

The 5-year relative survival rates for people who have been diagnosed with TNBC between 2012 and 2018 are:

Stage of cancer5-year relative survival rate
all stages combined77%

It’s important to remember that these figures are estimates. A person’s outlook depends on many factors, including:

  • the stage and grade of the cancer
  • your age
  • your overall health
  • how well the cancer responds to treatment

Your oncologist or doctor will be able to give you a more precise outlook based on your individual situation.

What is a relative survival rate?

A relative survival rate gives you an idea of how long someone with a specific condition may live after their diagnosis compared with someone without the condition.

For example, a 5-year relative survival rate for someone with localized TNBC of 91% means that someone with that condition and stage of cancer is 91% as likely to live for 5 years as someone without TNBC.

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The stages of breast cancer are 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 triple-negative breast cancer, healthcare professionals use a scale of stage 0–4.

  • Stage 0: Stage 0 breast cancers are isolated in one part of the breast, such as a duct or lobule.
  • Stage 1: Stage 1 is typically localized, and has not spread beyond a single, nearby lymph node.
  • Stage 2: Stage 2 are regionalized cancers that haven’t spread beyond the lymph nodes near the underarms.
  • Stage 3: In stage 3, the cancer may have spread beyond the breast to nearby tissues, but has not spread to distant organs.
  • Stage 4: Stage 4 cancer has spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes, and into other organs and tissues of the body.

How does breast cancer spread?

Breast cancer spreads when one of the cancerous cells breaks off from the original tumor. These cancerous cells then attach to the outer wall of a blood or lymph vessel.

Once the cancer cells penetrate this outer wall, they can move with the blood (if they’ve penetrated a blood vessel) or lymphatic fluid (if they’ve penetrated a lymph vessel). Using these modes of travel, cancerous cells will eventually reach another organ or lymph node.

Cancer typically first spreads to the lymph node closest to the tumor. Once it has reached the blood or lymphatic system, the cancer will likely spread to the bones, liver, lungs, or brain.

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In addition to stages, breast cancers are given grades based on the size, shape, and activity of the cells in the tumor.

Grades help doctors determine how slowly or quickly a cancer may develop. The grades also help doctors determine treatment.

  • Grade 1: Grade 1 is considered to be a low grade cancer. Under a microscope, the cancer cells look similar to noncancerous cells. Grade 1 cancer cells usually grow slowly and are less likely to spread.
  • Grade 2: Grade 2 is a moderate or intermediate-grade cancer. The cancer cells look more abnormal than noncancerous cells and grow slightly faster than grade 1 cells.
  • Grade 3: This grade is considered to be a high grade cancer. The cells look very different from noncancerous cells and may grow faster than grade 1 or 2 cells.

TNBC is often labeled grade 3.

Other factors affecting your outlook include your age, health, and how well your cancer responds to treatment.

  • Age: According to Cancer Research UK, age-specific mortality rates rise steadily between the ages of 45 and 49, and increase sharply between the ages of 70 and 74. The highest cancer mortality rates occur at the age of 90.
  • Health: Your health at the time of diagnosis is a big factor in determining your outlook for TNBC. Treatments for this type of breast cancer are often invasive and aggressive, and your ability to tolerate treatment is reliant on your overall health.
  • Response to treatment: Like other types of breast cancer, TNBC can often be treated successfully if it’s caught early. However, in general, response to treatment tends to be lower with TNBC compared to other forms of breast cancer.

How is triple-negative breast cancer treated?

Treatment for TNBC typically involves chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, or a combination of those. Even though TNBC can be an especially aggressive type of breast cancer, your doctor may or may not recommend aggressive treatment.

The standard of care for TNBC is a chemotherapy backbone, alone or in combination with other conventional therapies. Finding a better treatment for TNBC is a major focus of breast cancer research.

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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. A 2019 study found 40% of people with TNBC experienced a recurrence of their cancer after treatment.

There’s a sharp decline in the rate of recurrence after the 5-year mark.

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

Can diet affect the outlook of people with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC)?

If you’ve been diagnosed with TNBC, your body needs energy to contend with the disease and the side effects of treatments. Whole foods like fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and meats such as chicken and fish, are best. And be sure to drink plenty of water.

Avoiding sugary beverages and processed foods (that may contain added sugar and fats) is recommended. A 2019 study found that fructose has been shown to induce changes in triple-negative breast cancer cells that may increase their aggressiveness.

A 2020 study also found that exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) plastic food packaging may induce breast cancer cell proliferation. But more research is needed in this area.

Can you be cured of triple-negative breast cancer?

TNBC is an aggressive form of breast cancer. If caught early, doctors may be able to put TNBC into remission with aggressive treatments. However, recurrence is always a possibility, and TNBC is more likely to return than other types of breast cancer.

If TNBC cancer is diagnosed after it has spread, treatments can help a person live longer and enjoy a better quality of life.

Is triple-negative breast cancer painful?

Common symptoms of TNBC cancer include a hard lump, swelling of the breast, skin dimpling, nipple retraction, and pain or tenderness in the breast or lymph nodes under the arm.

If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor right away.

What is the most aggressive type of breast cancer?

Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is an extremely aggressive form of breast cancer that’s difficult to treat. The deadliest forms of breast cancer are those that have already metastasized (spread) to other areas in your body.

As with all types of cancer, early diagnosis is critical for achieving better outcomes.

TNBC is an aggressive cancer that is often difficult to treat. It’s also more likely to spread and recur than other breast cancers. But there are effective treatments available, and researchers are working on medication therapies that target TNBC.

It’s also important to remember that no one, not even your healthcare professionals, 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 that can’t be predicted.

If you’ve been diagnosed with TNBC, have a lengthy talk with your doctor or oncologist about your treatment options and outlook.